The original Super Mario Bros. movie, which debuted way back in 1993, was so bad it made the entire concept of adapting a video game for film into a punchline — or that’s how the story goes. It wasn’t until Detective Pikachu, Sonic the Hedgehog, and that other mushroom-infested story that the genre finally got some respect in Hollywood. The film has lived on in infamy for three decades, ignored by Nintendo and shunned by streaming services. But how bad is it really?
I first watched it when I was seven and mostly remember it being a much darker version of what I had hoped for. There was a creepy fungus, Mario yelled, and the Mushroom Kingdom was replaced with a cyberpunk city called Dinohattan. But even with those changes, it was still Super Mario to me. The brothers were there, they rescued a princess, and for the first time, I was able to spot Easter eggs and details that most people I knew had missed. When you’re seven, being the only person to recognize a Bullet Bill is something to brag about. I didn’t know anything about what makes for a good film, but I knew I enjoyed it.
With the much more on-brand animated Super Mario Bros. Movie premiering on April 5th, I figured now was the time to revisit those memories for the first time in a few decades and see if it’s as awful as its legacy suggests. So I bought a DVD off of Amazon and stuck it in my PS5.
This movie is much weirder than I remember.
First, it might be a good thing to put the film’s release in context. The late ’80s and early ’90s were actually a great time for inventive live-action adaptations. Nowadays, that term has been ruined by Disney and its unnecessary, CG-laden takes on animated classics. But back then, we had the likes of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the Flintstones brought to life with cool costumes and elaborate set designs. The movies weren’t always great, but for a kid, they made these fictional words seem more real.
With all of that going on, a live-action take on Mario makes a lot of sense. The games were a cultural phenomenon, and Bob Hoskins as Mario wasn’t that strange of a choice a few years removed from Who Framed Roger Rabbit? The film is definitely a mess, but it’s also an entertaining one and an experience that’s very much an artifact of its time.
Here’s the premise: 65 million years ago, the meteor that killed the dinosaurs actually transported them to a parallel realm, where they evolved in isolation from the rest of the Earth. Somehow, this means they basically became humans but with some lizard-y features. King Koopa, who is played by Dennis Hopper and I guess is supposed to be Bowser, lords over a post-apocalyptic version of dino New York and dreams of merging the worlds together again so that he can strip the Earth of its natural resources. To do that, he needs a piece of the meteorite that is in our world because a dino egg was brought here years ago, and it hatched out what would eventually be Princess Daisy, who grew up to be a paleontologist.
To be clear, this sounds nothing like any Mario Bros. game. A charitable reading would suggest that the dinosaur stuff was pulled from Super Mario World on the SNES, which took place in a world called Dinosaur Land and, more importantly, introduced the world to Yoshi. (In the movie, Yoshi is a tiny raptor who does not babysit Baby Mario at any point.) But that’s a stretch. Instead, it feels like a bunch of action movie cliches with some Super Mario references forced in.
This is mostly still true even when the brothers are factored in. Mario and Luigi — played by Hoskins and John Leguizamo — are pulled into the drama after they attempt to rescue Daisy (Samantha Mathis), who is being sought after by Koopa’s goons. At no point is it made clear what the royal family of the Mushroom Kingdom looks like, but she’s definitely important. Mario and Luigi end up traveling to the parallel dimension, which is kind of like Mad Max as envisioned by Jim Henson, a sprawling metropolis surrounded by a lifeless desert.
Almost nothing about this world feels intrinsically Super Mario. Instead, it’s a fairly standard dark, dystopic city with a few references thrown in, which lends the world a bizarre feel. And those Mario details that I remember as a kid are pretty far removed from the source material. There are goombas, but they’re actually just de-evolved dinosaur people who have tiny lizard heads. Toad shows up, but instead of a screeching mushroom boy, he’s a busker singing Koopa protest anthems. There are mushrooms, sort of, in the form of a fungal infestation that is choking the dino city and is also somehow the king. Oh, and Mario and Luigi do some jumping, like in the games, using rocket-powered boots in a few ill-conceived action sequences.
Essentially, Super Mario Bros. is the result of two trends colliding: live-action remakes and the emergence of video games as a pop culture force. Instead of a film that explores what makes the Mario universe interesting or distinct, it tries to shoehorn it into a weird action movie to capitalize on the moment. To be clear, as nonsensical as the movie gets, there are some very interesting moments. It’s so weird hearing Hoskins yell his way through Mario, saying things like “I’ll break every bone in their bodies!” while also seducing a club owner by claiming he likes to get punched in the face. It’s nice that no one kink-shames the most famous character in video games. That’s definitely something I missed as a kid. And, man, this movie is so ’90s; at one point, there’s even a Bob-omb wearing Reeboks.
Of course, in hindsight — and thanks to lots of good reporting over the years — I also now know that the movie wasn’t just poorly thought out — it was also a nightmare to put together. There are stories about actors losing it at the constantly rewritten script, two newbie directors clearly in over their heads with a big-budget movie (neither would direct a Hollywood film again), and to this day, pretty much no one aside from the VFX team has much good to say about it. In 2014, when asked what his one lasting memory of the film is, co-director Rocky Morton told Nintendo Life simply: “humiliation.”
What’s most interesting about Super Mario Bros. in 2023 isn’t how bad it is, though, but how much the art of adapting something like a video game has changed in three decades — likely due to just how poorly this movie was received. The film’s directors, Morton and Annabel Jankel, played fast and loose with Nintendo’s world in a way that’s impossible today, an era where worldbuilding and brand bibles are paramount. The Super Mario Bros. Movie that releases this week is one that pays tribute to the games and is part of a broader push from Nintendo to become more than just a video game company. Similarly, one of the things critics praised about The Last of Us on HBO was just how much it stayed true to the games.
In that regard, you can see why Nintendo has continued to distance itself from the original movie and why it went a very different route for the new one. The company partnered with Illumination, a known quantity behind some of the most successful animated films ever, and had Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto serve as a producer. The result is something that, even from the very first trailer, feels like it’s part of the same world as the games it’s based on. It’s safe and comfortable. That might make for a better movie — but 30 years from now, it probably won’t be as fascinating to rewatch as its notorious predecessor.