One of the earlier attempts to forge a creative and commercial symbiosis between the gaming and cinematic world, Super Mario Bros (1993) still stands out as a prime example of what not to do when trying to construct a watertight feature-length narrative on the foundations of a simplistic platform game. Effectively killing the filmmaking career of husband and wife directorial team Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel (known for 1985’s Max Headroom), the duo’s approach of throwing everything at the screen and seeing what sticks results in a bloated, headache-inducing mess with little to engage anyone, even the intended demographic.
Following the flimsiest of premises, we’re treated to some unremarkable New York-based action before plumbing siblings Mario and Luigi (Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo, respectively) are pulled into an alternative reality version of earth, populated with humans who have evolved from dinosaur rather than ape. They must stop the fascist ruler King Koopa (Dennis Hopper) before he can reclaim a mystic key from the Mushroom Princess (Samantha Mathis) which will bridge the gap between the two worlds, and allow him to conquer both. To give the makers some credit, there’s an attempt to imbue the pixelated characters with a flesh and blood facade, particularly in switching the relationship dynamic between the brothers and making Mario the paternal-like figure to the younger, hot-headed Luigi.
The cyberpunk-esque, industrial production design of the inter-dimensional world is impressively realised (chances are if you hire Blade Runner art director David L. Snyder you won’t get a second-rate job) but by reshaping the original property to fit the cinema screen, very little from the actual game survives the transition. Jankel and Morton seek to emulate the energetic, fast-paced style of the game-playing experience through their busy slapstick-heavy set pieces. Alas, they’re simply not skilful enough at staging action, resulting in a jagged, stop-start quality which comes across as awkward when it should be exhilarating.
The infamously chaotic production was allegedly plagued by last minute rewrite requests from the financiers (one director-sanctioned draft was produced by famed UK sitcom duo Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais) and that behind-the-scenes conflict is apparent everywhere in the finished product. Very little makes sense and chunks of garbled exposition and some frightfully bad ADR is doled out wherever possible in an attempt to smooth over the gaping potholes and add some semblance of story development. Even the potentially subversive pleasure of seeing Hopper completely lose his rag in a kiddie’s film never really materialises. Nostalgic die-hard fans of the game may feel compelled to revisit Super Mario Bros but for the non-gamers out there, the film falls painfully short of being awarded an ‘extra life’ in those two decades since its initial cinema release.