There’s perhaps no better example of how different the Hollywood landscape was 25 years ago than the fact that Bob Hoskins was once Disney’s choice to launch a major new franchise. 1993’s Super Mario Bros. was produced for a robust $48 million, was released in the prestige summer slot of May 28, and was based on the best known video-game title in history at the height of its success. It also starred a 50-year old British character actor, was largely set in a surreal industrial hellscape, and was filled with nightmarish (at least for 7-year-old me) scenes of people being transmogrified into grinning mutant reptiles.
At the time, the film was greeted with shrugs by moviegoers—it grossed $20.9 million, less than half its budget—and with revulsion by critics. Super Mario Bros. was little more than a punchline, with the very idea of adapting a video game hoisted up as an example of Hollywood’s slipping standards. But watching it in 2018, when practically every summer blockbuster has to be attached to a brand name and pitched at the widest audience possible, Super Mario Bros. feels refreshing: Here is a shameless corporate cash-in that barely attempts to be remotely commercial.
That lack of mass appeal isn’t Hoskins’s fault. After all, he was only a few years removed from starring in a genuine sensation, Robert Zemeckis’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit, where he demonstrated his special gift for playing it straight in an environment of utter lunacy. His character, detective Eddie Valiant, was a man consumed by grief and alcoholism, struggling to overcome his deep-seated prejudice against sentient cartoons, and Hoskins made that feel real rather than winking to the camera and letting the audience know he was aware of the film’s heightened reality.