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Game vs. Film – Super Mario Bros.
Note: You can check out the podcast version of Game vs. Film here.
The Game: In 1993, The Super Mario series had seen a total of 7 games released; three for the original NES (Super Mario Bros. 1, 2, & 3), two for the Gameboy (Super Mario Land 1 & 2) and two for the Super Nintendo (Super Mario World & All-Stars.) Disregarding some minor deviations in setting and characters, most of these had a similar plot; the titular plumber and his brother Luigi had to run and jump their way across a fantastical landscape to rescue the princess of a race of sentient mushrooms (Peach) after she is captured by the king of a race of turtle monsters (Bowser). While that basic story could vary from game to game, the mechanics did not; Mario & Luigi ran to the right, jumped on enemies, and raced through levels. It is probably the most popular gaming series of all time.
The Film: Directed by Annabel Jankel & Rocky Morton (whose previous highlight had been a Max Headroom TV movie, and whose highlights afterward would include . . . nothing of note) the adaptation of the popular gaming series had a rocky start, as it cycled through a number of writers and directors before being complete. Starring Bob Hoskins, John Leguizamo, and Dennis Hopper, it tells the story of two New York plumbers who find themselves embroiled in a parallel universe inhabited by humans evolved from dinosaurs, where they must confront a despotic ruler.
The film version of Super Mario Bros. could have pulled from any of the 7 games released up until that point, and it seems that it pulled from all of them, piece by piece. Many original elements from the first game are pulled; Mario, Luigi, and Bowser (renamed King Koopa) are all present, as are Goombas, Bo-bombs, Bullet Bills, and a host of other smaller references and concepts. Yoshi is pulled from Super Mario World, Daisy is pulled from Super Mario Land, and a very vaguely reminiscent Big Bertha is pulled from Super Mario 3. In fact, the film has a veritable laundry list of references and call-outs to the Mario franchise. If there’s one thing the film adaptation could not be faulted for, it is in the sheer number of elements it adapted from the games.
The translation of the those elements, however, is where things start to go downhill fast. Toad is turned from an adorable anthropomorphic mushroom into a punk rock dissident street performer. Kuribo Boots are turned from a game power-up that puts you in a giant shoe to sets of consumer jetpack shoes that use Bullet Bills (an anthropomorphic bullet enemy in the game) as cartridges to power it. Big Bertha gets one of the strangest adaptations, going from a giant red fish who attempts to swallow Mario whole to a giant woman in a red, spiky dress who attempts to make out with Mario.
Not all the elements translated poorly, though; there an awful lot of pipes, plumbing does in fact play a major role in much of the films plot, the bob-omb is one of the better gags in the film, and their version of Yoshi is actually pretty great, so at least some aspects are carried over intact. Bob Hoskins is actually pretty great as Mario, playing him as gruff and no-nonsense, while John Leguizamo’s Luigi is fun enough as the bumbling, good hearted idiot savant. But besides these exceptions, the rest of the concepts are taken solely in name, some basic information, and aesthetic and then seem to have been twisted as much as possible to fit into a world in which they do not apparently belong.
Which brings us to what is probably the most egregious of the translations; the world itself. In the games, players traverse The Mushroom Kingdom, a world of grassy plains, bright white clouds, and oddly numerous bright green pipes. Somehow, the film has translated that into Dinohattan, a grungy, filthy, bizarrely dystopian cesspool full of unsavory characters. From the introduction of this setting on, the film’s tone is at war with itself, with the fairly adult world colliding with the goofy, ridiculous elements within it.
The films also brings in a fair amount of plot points to fill in the story holes left by the game (which to be fair, didn’t offer much in the way of narrative). These plot points include parallel universes, portals between worlds, a weighted focus on evolution as a vehicle for sci-fi gadgetry, and a good amount of political & social satire. None of these have anything at all to do with the video game universe, and only serve to overly complicate the story. It doesn’t help matters that the logic and rules behind these extra elements are constantly broken; the de-evolution machine does something different each time it’s used and the the actual rules surrounding the portal between the two universes are never established clearly.
Ultimately, the movie isn’t a failure on it’s own right. It’s bizarre and uneven, but it’s also pretty entertaining in all of its insanity and nonsense. In and of itself, its actually a fun little oddity of a movie. As an adaptation of the Super Mario Bros. video games, however, it doesn’t work. What you realize while watching it is that the film didn’t even need to be a Mario movie at all; they could have changed the names and looks of a few things, and it would have been a completely unrelated film. The movie is far more interested in its darker alternate universe satire than it is in the actual games it is coming from.
It’s for all these reasons that in the end, there can be only one winning pair of Super Mario Bros.