One morning in New York City, sometime in 1996, I sat on the basement floor of Washington Market Park Pre-School and talked to my teacher about Mario. “Was there ever a Mario movie?” She looked down and said, “Yes… but you don’t want to see it.”
I learned to read playing Nintendo 64, and as a kid never understood why there were never any major motion pictures or even television shows about video game characters. Big Bird? Elmo? Barney? They had their run in my sun, but nothing they did could ever compare to a work of art like Super Mario 64. They deserved a movie more than The Flintstones, or even The Brady Bunch. If they had been in a movie, why wouldn’t I want to see it?
My teacher described everything that was wrong with Super Mario Bros., the 1993 film directed by Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel, and starring Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo as Mario and Luigi, respectively. She said it was nothing like the games: dark, dreary, “gritty,” and basically unwatchable. But how could this be? It stars Mario and Luigi. “They don’t wear the costumes.” WHAT! “They don’t put them on until about an hour into the movie, and it’s not very long. Don’t watch it.” WHY! “You don’t want to.”
I don’t remember learning that Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy weren’t real, but whenever people talk about that, it reminds me of that morning, when I learned that there was a Mario movie, and not only was it bad, it was so bad that my teacher told me I shouldn’t even seek it out. And I didn’t—I’m sure our neighborhood video store World of Video had a copy, and if not, Kim’s certainly did. But I got burned throughout the mid- and late-1990s: Home Alone 3 blew, Lost in Space was a bore, and it was disappointing; ditto for Dudley Do-Right. These would all come after the Mario revelation, but on that morning, I learned that sometimes a major motion picture can just fucking suck, because, “THEY RUINED IT!”
Like I wrote last spring, Nintendo’s latest Mario movie is magnificent, a film that lit me up like a Christmas tree from minute one and never let up. The Super Mario Bros. Movie is by some distance the best American children’s movie in a generation, and certainly more successful than the 1993 attempt. Morton and Jankel were hired by the producers based on their involvement in the Max Headroom character, and they would’ve been better off just playing “the Max Headroom incident” [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jjeUuakHsLw] on hundreds of televisions in the elaborate Dinohattan set than anything the leads or villain Dennis Hopper have to say. Super Mario Bros. is a cocaine movie: one or two aspects are astonishingly detailed and highlighted, while everything else is a total mess, punishingly boring and dysfunctional. Crucially, the aspects emphasized must be secondary or tertiary qualities in filmmaking: production design, costumes, lighting design, sets.
Super Mario Bros. is just another example of how far popular American cinema has fallen in 30 years. This was a disastrous failure that ruined the directors’ careers; the actual production of the film was a nightmare for everyone; and nearly every creative choice is dead wrong. But they have massive sets. They have animatronics. They have puppets, and practical effects and costumes. Explosions aren’t computer-generated, and you can feel all of this. It’s a physical feeling, surely where the expressions “jumps off the screen” originated. Nothing computer-generated or AI-written will ever approach even a movie as awful as Super Mario Bros. ’93.
—Follow Nicky Smith on Twitter: @nickyotissmith