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.
Toss in his portly stature and Hoskins was a perfect choice for the heroic plumber Mario, the avenging angel who stomps through worlds of evil turtles and living mushrooms, even if the actor was neither Italian nor American. For the film’s producer Roland Joffé, ethnicity was clearly less crucial than vibe. Hoskins and his Latino costar John Leguizamo (playing Mario’s brother, Luigi) excelled at playing men with permanent chips on their shoulders. How else could one explain a plumber daring to challenge the reign of a massive fire-breathing dinosaur dictator, armed with only a prodigious gift for jumping?
It’s not the casting of Super Mario Bros. that startled me when rewatching the film (which is incredibly hard to do unless you own it on DVD). It was the recognition that nothing in this movie, which was rated PG, could really appeal to children. The world of the Mario video games is colorful and cartoonish, almost friendly—enemies might hurl fireballs at you, but they do it while riding in a cloud decorated with a smiley face. The design of Super Mario Bros. the movie, which was directed by Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel (the team behind the cult TV series Max Headroom), is dank and dystopic, a cyberpunk city on a desert planet overrun with a mysterious brown fungus and policed by bipedal lizards in Nazi-like trench coats.
Only a few years later would come blockbusters like Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin (1997), a film that was designed expressly with toy sales in mind (whole scenes were constructed with an eye for how they might later be rendered in miniature, plastic form). Nothing in Super Mario Bros. feels “toyetic.” Instead, it borrows from the washed-out visuals of early ’90s sci-fi films like David Fincher’s Alien 3 or David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch that predicted a rotting sewer of a future.
It’s strange, then, that the plot of Super Mario Bros. is incredibly faithful to the basic concept of Shigeru Miyamoto’s platform games. There is a princess (Daisy, played by Samantha Mathis), who’s held prisoner by a villainous tyrant (King Koopa, played by Dennis Hopper) in a world unlike Mario’s own. Super Mario Bros. posits an alternate dimension called “Dinohatten,” where humans evolved from reptiles rather than apes; that’s where Brooklyn plumbers Mario and Luigi have to go to save Daisy and prevent a hostile invasion from the cold-blooded Koopa and his troop of turtles.
“It was a very fun project that they put a lot of effort into,” the famously sunny Miyamoto said in a 2007 interview with Edge magazine. “The movie may have tried to get a little too close to what the Mario Bros. video games were. And in that sense, it became a movie that was about a video game, rather than being an entertaining movie in and of itself.” That is about the kindest way to put it—though Super Mario Bros. looks nothing like the video game, the film’s strangled attempts to transmute the games’ elemental storytelling into a Hollywood narrative just make it even weirder.
Nobody involved with the film was happy about the end product. Hopper reportedly exploded at the directors on set about constant script rewrites, saying they had no control over the movie. Leguizamo later confessed that he and Hoskins would drink whiskey between takes; Hoskins later called it a “fuckin’ nightmare” to make. According to Mathis, Morton and Jankel were dismissed from the film with some three weeks of production remaining. The directors recalled the entire experience of making the movie as humiliating.
Though Super Mario Bros. was distributed by Disney (and made by their now-defunct Hollywood Pictures label), its production was a world away from the tightly controlled, vertically integrated process that the mega-studio now exerts over its projects. On-set drama has hardly been eliminated—it just happened with Solo, Disney’s new Star Wars movie—but films with such a bizarre throwback look and grim point of view rarely ever make it through the studio filter, especially franchise titles aimed at families. Super Mario Bros. is the kind of glorious missed opportunity that the industry just can’t allow to happen anymore, an instant cult curio that might be bad but is never bland—an experience that, if nothing else, is hard to forget all these years later.