The summer of 1993 gave everyone, but mostly kids and teens, one of the most anticipated movies – Super Mario Bros. The film was hated by critics, ended up being on several “worst of” for the year, the decade, all time. Many people today consider Super Mario Bros to be the worst possible film adaptation of a video game…. I don’t, however. It’s not a GREAT movie, but it’s not as bad as people consistently say. It’s my opinion that people now who say that the Super Mario Bros film weren’t there watching it in theaters that opening weekend of 1993; they’ve ridden a bandwagon of internet cynicism and a modern point-of-view of what video game movies “should” be. In 1993, however, this Super Mario Bros film was exactly what we wanted.
ADAPTING A VIDEO GAME
What exactly IS The Mushroom Kingdom? What is there about the Mushroom Kingdom that the Super Mario Bros films portrays so inaccurately? Taking a look at the instruction manual for the original game offers no answer. The Mushroom Kingdom is just this place where “the dark sorcerer Bowser, King of the Koopas,” invaded. Bowser turned all the citizens into things, such as bricks and pipes and trees and kidnapped Princess Peach (Princess Toadstool in the US version). It is up to Mario to save the day (or, as the manual describes it; “You are the Mario in the TV”). Mario and Luigi are recycled from the game Mario Bros where they were a pair of plumbers stopping strange creatures appearing in NYC sewers they just happen to be on the scene to save the Mushroom Kingdom. The manual further describes that citizens of the Mushroom Kingdom will “aide Mario in his quest” by giving him mushrooms and coins when he encounters them. In short, when you break a block, a block that is actually a transformed citizen of the mushroom kingdom, as he dies what must be a horribly agonizing death he offers Mario a fire flower. Super Mario Bros 2 is all just a dream Mario and come Super Mario Bros 3 I suppose Mario and Luigi just happen to live in what’s now The Mushroom WORLD and encompasses several different kingdoms. Then there’s Super Mario Land, the Game Boy game which isn’t even in the Mushroom Kingdom – it takes place in some place called Sarasaland and Mario must save Princess Daisy from Tatanga, an evil spaceman (leading my friends and I to refer to Daisy as Mario’s “side bitch”).
How do you resolve that for a film? What exactly IS the Mushroom Kingdom? It’s just some place that’s somewhere and Mario and Luigi just happen to be there for some reason. Even the Super Mario Bros Super Show didn’t know how to resolve this – limiting their backstory to an line in the opening song that the two brothers were accidentally “warped into” the Mushroom Kingdom while working on a bathtub drain in Brooklyn. How does that happen? What exactly is “warping” and how did it happen? And what the hell was wrong with this poor woman’s bathtub in Brooklyn that it’s randomly sending plumbers to imaginary worlds? These are questions never answered in the source material, so the filmmakers needed to come up with something, some sort of logic to create a narrative around. No backstory works for a video game – but for a movie you need a reason why things happen, a place where things exist. So the filmmakers decided upon a parallel dimension where civilization evolved from reptiles instead of from humans – that makes a hell of a lot more sense than the bullshit “whatever” Mushroom Kingdom. Seeing that explanation for the world in 1993 gave a context to a universe that had such minimal story to begin with.
THE APPEARANCE OF THE CHARACTERS
Today, when a movie is announced and as it goes through development towards production and on to its release there are news items all over the internet with constant updates. It’s big news whenever a director is announced for a new comic book adaptation, big news when the cast is announced and even bigger news when we get the first photos of them on set. That upcoming Suicide Squad movie isn’t due out for another year, at least, but I bet even the most casual observer of the news could tell you everything there is to know about the Suicide Squad movie and all about the ins and outs of Jared Leto’s Joker. These constant updates, this ability to know absolutely everything months before the movie ever hits theater, this is not a new development – this isn’t something we have now thanks to the internet. This exact same thing existed back in 1993 – and we knew ALL about Super Mario Bros months before the movie came out.
Throughout the end of 1992 and into the first half of 1993 we knew this Super Mario Bros film was coming. We had production stills and background information regularly shown in issues of Nintendo Power, there were little “first look” featurettes during commercial breaks on Super Mario Bros Super Show. People today would say that the look of the heroes and villains in the Super Mario Bros film betrayed us because they look very little like the video game representations. In a sense, I suppose they did, but we didn’t feel betrayed when we sat there in the theater and saw them. Any anger we felt in 1993 about how these things looked was already gone by the time the movie came out. The anticipation and build-up to Super Mario Bros was pretty big… If you played video games at all you were exposed to everything about this movie. We knew by Christmas of 1992 what the Goombas in the movie were going to look like, those shriveled looking dinosaur things in military suits. We’d already accepted that by the time the movie came out. We knew that Yoshi was just some dumb animatronic dinosaur because Nintendo Power published a whole article about that in February, with pictures of Princess Daisy (yeah, we already knew they went with Daisy over Peach) and all kinds of stuff about the film’s take on the Mushroom Kingdom. There was plenty of promotional material about the cast too, so we got to learn more about Dennis Hopper, we were introduced to the respectable English actor playing Mario and the Columbian-American stand-up comic playing Luigi. The point I’m making is that all of these things, which some so traitorous to the source material, we already knew these were in the movie and we chose to see the movie. Super Mario Bros gave us exactly what we knew and expected to be in the film.
Why are the characters so different looking?
Take Birdo (originally called “Catherine” in Japan), from Super Mario Bros 2, for instance. Birdo is a girl lizard thing as implied by the bow on her head and the fact that Birdo lays eggs. Eggs which come from its mouth – meaning that Birdo’s mouth is her vagina. Now these are all anthropomorphic animal/people so try for a moment to imagine a real woman with a uterus in her head who routinely menstruates through her vagina mouth. How do you resolve that for a film? How do you appropriately display the vagina-faced Birdo in a movie? You don’t. You don’t even mention Birdo – just add more Bob-ombs. Toad is just a bland looking hippie because, outside of a video game, anyone with his stupid mushroom head would look ridiculous. Koopa doesn’t have a shell because could you imagine how crippling it would be for a human to have that on their back? How awkward would something like that look on Dennis Hopper, or anyone at all actually (there was a while where Tom Hanks was supposed to be playing Koopa but he eventually dropped out)? Even with CGI, that kind of shell on a person’s back would have looked ridiculous.
In Southern California we had a live action Koopa. There was this local public-access show that came on after Super Mario Super Show called “King Koopa’s Kool Kartoons.” King Koopa would walk around a live audience of kids (his “Koopa Troopas”) and he’d say stuff, just a bunch of muffled words nobody could make out because it was a dude in a big foam suit. Then there would be some ancient public domain cartoon then Koopa would come back, say a bunch of inaudible nonsense and a kid from the audience would win a Nintendo Power Glove. Us kids in Los Angeles, we watched the hell out of this show and loved it because, along with Super Mario Super Show this is what we had for live-action Mario, we actually wanted to be on this show, to meet this “real” King Koopa and maybe win a Power Glove (it’s so bad!). Now look at this…
Look at that fuckin’ thing! LOOK AT IT! We accepted and tolerated this as being a realistic portrayal of King Koopa. That nightmare monster won a local Emmy for Best Youth Program in Los Angeles. And you know who is in that suit? Chris Latta, the guy that voiced Starscream in Transformers and the voice of Cobra Commander in G.I. Joe. Dennis Hopper in Super Mario Bros looks a billion times better than that… that THING. So we were happy, we were thankful for Dennis Hopper as Koopa because look at what we already had.