I can’t claim much in the way of intimacy with the original source material here; I’m more of a Sonic The Hedgehog kind of guy, but was intrigued by the growing critical momentum behind reappraisals of this much-mocked-on-release adaptation. Making films out of video games, and vice versa, has proved to be a tricky concept over the years, and Super Mario Brothers is often mentioned as an example of what can go wrong, although in the wake of the success of Detective Pikachu, a planned reboot is due to his screens in 2022.
The production credits are the most surprising thing here; Roland Joffe (The Killing Fields) and Jake Eberts (Gandhi)? Two super-serious film-makers handling a ‘skews-to-juveniles’ IP seems odd, but everyone has to make rent. Max Headroom directors Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel are nominally at the controls here, but it’s hard to discern any real authorship; I gather there’s a fresh cut to view, but I doubt it’ll be the one I just watched on Amazon Prime. John Leguizamo (Luigi) and On The Move star Bob Hoskins (Mario) play the Mario Brothers, and the story is a frantic effort to cram in as many forms of propulsion, from pulleys to hover-boots, so that the Mario brothers can fly. Having ticked the ‘emulate game-play’ box, things get complicated. In an alternative universe, an asteroid strike has split the earth into two dimensions, the one we know, the other a neon sex-world populated by dinosaurs. Politician King Koopa (you guessed it, perennial 90’s villain Dennis Hopper) seeks a meteorite fragment that will enable him to fuse the two universes together. That fragment hangs around the neck of Luigi’s girlfriend Daisy (Samantha Mathis), and the Mario Brothers must put aside their differences to fight Koopa to save the earth.
Super Mario Brothers is an origin story, but adds so much detail that any joy of seeing Mario fly is negated by heavy plotting and far too much time spent watching Hopper/Koopa chew the scenery. Koopa’s experimentation process, which results in reptile-headed monsters called Goombas, is quite unpleasant and it’s a relief when Mario and Luigi can get their hover-boots on and save the day. But the simplistic action of a 2D platform game really doesn’t work out well on the big screen. There’s a dozen ways to make this movie, but Joffe and Eberts seem to have been split for which audience to go for; the dystopian, dirty world that Koopa reigns over feels too dark for kids.
That said, there is something to be said for Super Mario Brothers, which had a big, sprawling production that’s great to look at, plus some impressive (for 1990) special effects, notably a cute baby dinosaur. It’s a wannabe Zemeckis film, but with only Back to the Future and Roger Rabbit as the sole entries in that family-friendly canon, this cheerfully ersatz production has points of interest for bored kids and aging ironists alike.