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Credit: Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

This Week in Genre History: Super Mario Bros. the movie gets an instant 'game over'

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May 27, 2020

Welcome to This Week in Genre History, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, take turns looking back at the world's greatest, craziest, most infamous genre movies on the week that they were first released.

Bob Hoskins, who died in 2014 at the age of 71, was one of Britain's most respected character actors. An Oscar nominee who deftly battled with a cartoon bunny in the beloved Who Framed Roger Rabbit, he shined in subversive sci-fi satires (Brazil) and ambitious Hollywood blockbusters (Hook) alike. But he never forgot his most galling experience.

"The worst thing I ever did? Super Mario Bros.," the late actor said in 2007. "It was a f***in' nightmare. The whole experience was a nightmare. It had a husband-and-wife team directing, whose arrogance had been mistaken for talent. After so many weeks their own agent told them to get off the set! F***in' nightmare. F***in' idiots."

Twenty-seven years later, that infamous cinematic catastrophe has lost none of its power to amaze with its sheer WTF-ness. Meant to launch a franchise, Super Mario Bros. hit the big screen on May 28, 1993, and was the first major film based on a video game. Hoskins played Mario, a gruff Brooklyn plumber working alongside his goofy kid brother Luigi (John Leguizamo). But they get more than they bargained for when they venture to a strange parallel New York known as Dinohattan that's populated with freaky upright reptiles and led by the villainous President Koopa (Dennis Hopper). Also, there's a Devo Chamber that turns humans into mindless lizards, resulting in a scene that traumatized a generation of young moviegoers.

Super Mario Bros. has to be seen to be believed. Some movies are so bad that they're secretly good. This film is so bad it crushes your spirit. It's unfathomably terrible. It does to your brain what the Devo Chamber does to Toad in the movie.

Why was it a big deal at the time? Nowadays, it's pretty common for video games to get the big-screen treatment. But before Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider ruled the multiplex, Nintendo bet big that audiences would be psyched to see a movie version of its Mario character.

And why not? After all, the Italian-American plumber had been a fixture in arcades and home gaming systems since the early '80s, first appearing as the barrel-smashing hero in Donkey Kong before getting his own game. (When you bought the original Nintendo Entertainment System in the late '80s, it came with the Super Mario Bros. cartridge.)

And the company certainly seemed to have assembled a smart creative team to ensure that the movie was a success. Producers Jake Eberts and Roland Joffe had collaborated on Oscar-winning films like The Killing Fields and The Mission. Cinematographer Dean Semler had snagged an Academy Award for Dances with Wolves and had also shot The Road Warrior. The married directing team of Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel had co-created Max Headroom, one of the most innovative TV shows of the '80s. And Hoskins was in demand thanks to the effects-heavy crowd-pleaser Who Framed Roger Rabbit, replacing Tom Hanks who, at that stage of his career, wasn't yet a box-office titan. (Remember, this was before his Oscar wins for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump.)

But about a year before its release, it was clear Super Mario Bros. was in serious trouble. A shocking Los Angeles Times set visit led to a damning article that painted a picture of a tense, miserable production in which the directors yelled at their cinematographer and the cast was frustrated by the endless rewrites. (When Hopper was told that Morton and Jankel wouldn't do interviews, the Easy Rider icon replied, "That's the smartest thing I've heard from them. That's the only intelligent thing I've heard that they've really actually done.")

It didn't help matters that the trailer looked little like the game audiences loved. What was this weird, scary fantasy world that the filmmakers had created? "This wasn't 'Snow White and the Seven Dinosaurs,'" Joffe later said. "The dino world was dark. We didn't want to hold back." In a world of edgy kids' movies like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, maybe Super Mario Bros. could catch on.

What was the impact? Audiences just weren't interested. Premiering over Memorial Day weekend of 1993, Super Mario Bros. ended up fourth at the box office, bested by Dave, Made in America, and Cliffhanger. And while there were some striking visual ideas in the movie — production designer David Snyder made Dinohattan a funky dystopia right out of Blade Runner — the story was a witless, stitched-together disaster. Critics absolutely hated it, including Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, who tore it apart on their show:

Super Mario Bros. ended on an ambiguous note — Luigi's love interest Daisy (Samantha Mathis), now the leader of the parallel universe, comes back to New York to ask for the brothers' help — but any hope of a sequel died once the film flatlined commercially. Needless to say, this wasn't an auspicious start for either Nintendo or video game movies in general. Even now, Super Mario Bros. is considered one of the worst game adaptations of all time, and its directors were effectively blacklisted because of the movie. "We were like lepers in Hollywood," Morton later told The Guardian. "To this day people say: 'You did Super Mario Bros.? Oh God...' It was 20 years ago, but it's still there. What can you do?"

This is what happens when you build a whole film around the belief that a movie starring Mario and Luigi just needed a lot of fungus to be a blockbuster.

Has it held up? Just like some masterpieces are hard to appreciate simply because their reputation is so glowing, an utter dog like Super Mario Bros. might seem too terrible to be true. C'mon, is it really that awful?

Yes, it is.

Hoskins and Leguizamo have no chemistry, and Hopper mostly hams it up as Koopa, behaving as if he just wants the whole miserable experience to be over. Every joke falls flat. (Fisher Stevens and Richard Edson, who play the witless Iggy and Spike, basically came up with their own lines on set because the script was so dreadful.) The only thing that's even remotely charming is the discovery that Goombas secretly really love to slow-dance:

No one involved with Super Mario Bros. has a nice thing to say about it. Even two years ago, Leguizamo went on Late Night With Seth Meyers to lament that he turned down a part, ironically, in Tom Hanks' Philadelphia in order to play Luigi. But for fans of the game who hated what Hollywood did to the Mario Brothers, redemption may be on the horizon: A few years ago, Illumination (the company behind Despicable Me) began pursuing plans to do an animated Super Mario Bros.

"I like that this was not done well the first time," Illumination founder Chris Meledandri said in 2018. "I think that's more exciting or more worthy than simply making another version of a film that was done incredibly well to begin with."

Safe to say, he'd have to try pretty hard to make a film that's even worse.

Tim Grierson is the co-host of The Grierson & Leitch Podcast, where he and Will Leitch review films old and new. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.

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