V.G. Movies #3: Super Mario Bros.

[Welcome back to the Evolution of Video Game Movies series. Every week, I will be moving forward through time, starting with the earliest and ending with the most recent of video game movies. I will be detailing the histories of the games and how the films came about, and both my and fan reaction to the adaptations. Practically all of my background information is either common knowledge or from Wikipedia. So without further ado, let's move on to the next film on the list.]


Last time, I discussed the origins of the Super Mario Bros. game. Today, I'm just going to briefly expand on that. The basic story of the original Mario was that Princess Toadstool (later re-named Peach after Super Mario 64), who rules over the Mushroom Kingdom, has been kidnapped by a giant dragon/dinosaur named Bowser (sometimes called Koopa, due to it later being revealed as his first name). Two brothers, Mario and Luigi, live in the Mushroom Kingdom and are tasked with saving her. As I said previously, this is a game that basically saved gaming in North America and is the second best-selling game of all time.

So of course there was gonna be a sequel. Originally there was in 1986, Super Mario Bros. 2: The Lost Levels was released in Japan... but not until years later in America. Why the difference? Because it was considered way too hard for American gamers. So in 1988, another SMB2 was released in America. It's drastically different from other games of the series, mostly because it was a completely different game and was altered to become a Mario game later. It involves the gang in a dreamland, and they can pick vegetables to throw at the enemies, etc.

But a SMB3 was still in demand. However, while they were converting SMB2 for American gamers, there was a lack in ROM chips which caused a delay in the release. This caused the company to have a little extra time and actually promote the game in a film. This film was called The Wizard, which was about a gaming tournament and included this particular game that hadn't been released yet. This third game in the series involved Toadstool getting kidnapped by Bowser after turning the king into a random thing and Mario and Luigi having to save the day. The game did well, and the series continued.

On the Nintendo Gameboy, we were given Super Mario Land, which introduced us to Princess Daisy (later revealed to be Peach's cousin, and Luigi's love interest). Daisy is kidnapped by an alien, and it's up to the brothers to save her. Then, in 1990, we were treated to Super Mario World... the game to introduce us to Yoshi. Mario and Luigi, after saving the Mushroom Kingdom, are having a vacation in Dinosaur Land. Of course, Princess Toadstool disappears, and it's up to the Brothers and Yoshi to save her from Bowser.

Clearly, it wasn't long before the popularity of the series demanded a film adaptation. It's considered the first actual Hollywood film based on a video game. Unfortunately, the movie was given a married couple director pair who argued about everything, never talked to each other or the actors about what should be going on, and apparently made life on set a living Hell. Most of the actors involved still proclaim this to be the worst experience on a film they've ever had. And while it does have numerous references to the games up to the point of production, the film is notorious for being nothing like the games. But upon further inspection, does it actually deserve its infamy... or is it actually not all that bad? Let's find out.


Mario (Bob Hoskins) and Luigi (John Leguizamo) are plumber brothers in Brooklyn just looking to catch a break. But one day, an archaeologist named Daisy (Samantha Mathis) gets kidnapped by a couple of doofuses, Iggy (Fisher Stevens) and Spike (Richard Edson), who are cousins to an evil King, Koopa (Dennis Hopper). Koopa rules over a parallel universe called Dinohattan (though Koopa makes an off-hand comment calling it a "mushroom kingdom" at one point). He has taken the throne from the previous king, Bowser, and wants a meteorite shard that will merge their world with Earth (since they're just a parallel universe of evolved dinosaurs that came to existence when the meteorite hit). Now it's up to Mario and Luigi to save Daisy and stop Koopa before it's too late.

When I was a little kid, I really did love this movie. I thought it was a lot of fun, and it never bothered me that it was nothing like the games (which I was also a fan of). But you know what it's like when you watch a kid-favorite film as an adult. It usually turns out awful. And as this film is already considered awful, I was marginally scared of how my thoughts on it were going to change. So did they?

Nope. I still think the movie is totally fun, and it doesn't deserve the bad reputation it has. Before you write me off (if you didn't already do that years ago), let me explain why. Let's start with the first part anybody ever notices in a movie adaptation of anything--the cast. I actually think Bob Hoskins was a perfect choice for Mario. Now, John Leguizamo looks nothing like Bob Hoskins (and is about 22 years younger). But it was actually explained pretty well that Mario adopted him, which was a pleasant and unique twist. I don't know if he is the absolute perfect choice for Luigi, but I think he did well with the role in this film, albeit sometimes a bit awkward. Mathis was perfect as the blonde Princess--she had attitude and spunk, and if she were to be cast today, it would be Elizabeth Banks (who Mathis looks like here anyway). Then... yes, Dennis Hopper as Koopa is great and over-the-top as you would expect a dinosaur-based evil king to be. So was anything wrong with the cast? I don't think so.

What usually falls apart in older films are this type are the visuals and/or special effects. But you know what? The effects in this film still hold up. Hell, I would say there are some movies today (*cough*SeasonoftheWitch*cough*) whose CGI is actually worse. There really isn't a whole lot of CGI; a lot of the film is practical and looks good because of that. And the computer effects that are there were apparently top of the line, as I didn't feel they were really all that bad or cheesy (including the "flying through the dimensional vortex" moment).

So I guess that really leaves the problem with the story. First, let's look at the story as a standalone, not as an adaptation. There's a nice setup where our heroes meet Daisy, get to know her a bit, and then have to chase after her when she gets kidnapped. They end up in a dystopian world where a tyrant(asaurus! Sorry...) has taken over the city from the old king, de-evolving him into slimy fungus. The king wants to merge the worlds to regain his rightful place on Earth and, thus, rule it all. Ignoring the adaptation aspect, it's a pretty solid story. There aren't really any major holes that I could decipher. It gives us a world and its rules and it abides by them. So for all intents and purposes, it's solid. And it's not boring, giving a mix of wacky action, adventure, and comedy.

But then you look at it as an adaptation... and this is where things fall apart. Neither Mario nor Luigi are Italian (nor is Luigi a blood brother). Where is Peach? Well, as we discovered earlier, Peach wasn't so named until the era of the Nintendo 64, which was after this film was made. Prior to that, it was Toadstool... and who is going to be walking around with the name Toadstool in a Hollywood movie? Daisy, a secondary princess in the series, was available, so it was used instead. Now, Daisy is Luigi's love interest, and they kept to that in the film. Although Mario ended up with some regular woman from Brooklyn (which kind of destroys the classic Mario/Toadstool dynamic). Anyway, the Goombas are enormous with tiny heads, which is pretty much the exact opposite of the games. Toad is... well, he's not even close to his game counterpart. Koopa isn't in a dinosaur form (well, he is for about 10 seconds at the climax, but that's about it). Don't even mention how Koopa has taken over from the previous king, Bowser (Bowser and Koopa are the same character!). Et cetera, et cetera.

But what is typically looked over are how many details the movie did keep from the games. The story is more of a mix of Super Mario Land and Super Mario World than Super Mario Bros. The world of the movie is closest to the Dinosaur Land of World (including Yoshi's appearance in this film and having eggs everywhere), while Daisy being kidnapped by somebody from another "planet" was taken from Land. You see the Shy Guys of SMB2. You see Bullet Bills as the ammunition for the jumping boots (which I'm assuming is a reference to the giant boots in SMB3). There's a Bob-omb, and a mushroom that is used to protect Mario right before he briefly grows in size (when he disintegrates to return to the Dino world). The king is transformed, like in SMB3. Big Bertha is there to represent the giant red fish in the games. There are the fireball guns. And the connections go on and on, even including some sound effects.

To me, this film is more of a re-imagining of the games' ideas than a straight adaptation. Because, seriously, how are you going to adapt a story about a dinosaur kidnapping a princess so that two Italian plumber brothers must travel through multiple worlds to fight turtles and other dinosaurs using mushrooms that make you big, flowers that make you shoot fireballs, and stars that make you twinkle invincibility. It's a damn near impossible story to tell, especially if you attempt to adapt it straight--as shown in the Japanese anime version. Personally, I feel that this was a smarter route to go. Now, could it have used a little more work? Definitely. Even as a re-imagining, it wasn't perfect. There are some painful aspects to this movie, and, yeah, it can get really cheesy/dumb at times. I think they could have done slightly more justice to the games. But as it is, I think the film is good cheesy, charming, and fun in its own right. I think it was unjustly given a bad reputation in its day, but looking back on it, it's really not all that bad... especially if you look at it as a children's film. I mean, damn... it's certainly better than 90% of the kids films that come out today.

A Keanu 'Whoa'


  1. I can't seem to locate a page to contact the author, so I suppose I'll have to leave a comment instead.

    I help run The Super Mario Bros. The Movie Archive, a website dedicated to the film this article covers. We found it to be incredibly insightful as well as thorough, which is something we see very rarely when it comes to this film.

    If you're interested, we would love to discuss the review further. Feel free to E-mail me at any time at Stevenapplebaum[at]Yahoo[dot]Com. We look forward to hearing back from you.

  2. I haven't seen the flick in forever, and I can't say that I feel the need to go back. My experience with the vg series goes barely beyond the first game (of which I played plenty of). I had the 3rd and was too old beyond that to care (or didn't have the right gaming system).

    Great call on Mathis/Banks - I think the same thing. The casting of Leguizamo is indeed off and yet fits at the same time. They could do better, though, and at least try to make them appear to be brothers. It's like they cast each role independent of the other roles.

    Anyway, it is indeed a thorough piece and kudos on your contact.

  3. Glad you finally read one of these articles, Dylan (Now go back and read the other 2!... please).

  4. C'mon, you know I barely care about VG movies...I'm doin' my best here.

  5. Very interesting read Nick. I get an urge to revisit both the film and all the classic Mario games!

  6. I bought this movie for my kid to watch because he is seven and obsessed with all things Mario, and I actually ended up liking it quite a bit. It helps that I'm a bad movie nut, but I thought, like you, that it doesn't quite deserve a reputation as bad as it has. The kid didn't like it, though.


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