Super Mario Bros. -- The Movie. Starring King Koopa and the guy who almost said "balls" in Roger Rabbit.

The people in charge of Super Mario Bros. certainly made some mistakes, but in all honesty, I don't think it's that bad of a flick. Misguided, yes. Surreal against all better judgment, absolutely. Once you get over the fact that the movie has about as much to do with the Nintendo games as Albert Brooks's Mother, there's a few charms waiting to be lapped up.

It's no secret that when people speak of ill-conceived game-to-movie conversions, Super Mario Bros. is probably at the tippy top of their minds. Judging it based on that, it's indeed the ultimate failure. Save for a few in-jokes, character names and extremely vague themes, the film has absolutely nothing to do with the Nintendo games we grew up playing. Not a thing. In fact, it rewrites the lore in such a way that it's virtually unrecognizable as a "Mario Movie" -- if not for the fact that Bob Hoskins and John Lequizzaaaiaimamo don the classic outfits later on in the film, watching this flick with the mute button in effect would instill no sense of anything related to Nintendo whatsoever.

So, if the movie's really not that bad, why is this such a problem? The primary reason: it was budgeted 40 million bucks. You could argue that anyone going into this project firmly confident that they'd recoup 40 million was at least an eensy bit insane, but to enlist such an enormous budget based on the film's name value alone and then not produce anything to live up to that name? Not the smartest move. In many ways the film would've been better served by killing off the Mario connections entirely -- something that could've been done with little effort. The movie's plot was oddball enough to pique some interest; writing it off as another "video game flick" might've actually cost it something.

I doubt that very many of you actually saw this thing in the theaters, though with the amount of times it's been shown on cable television, you've probably seen bits and pieces by now. If not...oh boy. If someone made a film more literally based on the games, chances are it'd be one of the strangest motion pictures ever. And yet, though Super Mario Bros. marches to its own beat and does away with 96.8% of the games' nuances, it's a thousand times weirder than you'd ever imagine. I'm tempted to keep going on and on with this paragraph in an effort to put off having to actually explain the story, but I guess I'm gonna have to do it sometime. Six cups of coffee later, and I think I'm almost ready to give it a whack. Wish me luck -- this won't be easy.

Okay, so the basics are kept in check. There's still a Mario and a Luigi, played by Hoskins and Leguizamo. They're still plumbers and they're still from Brooklyn. That part's all fine and dandy. Of course, it takes us a few minutes to meet the heroes, as the movie kicks off with a two-minute cartoon skit explaining how a meteor that crashed into Earth during prehistoric times effectively split the planet into parallel dimensions -- the one we live in, and the one where dinosaurs evolved into humanesque creatures who eat fried anoles. WHATTTTT??! WHHAHAHHAHAHT!?

Making a really long and screwy story short, Luigi falls for some archaeological chick named Daisy, who just happens to be the long lost princess of Parallel Universe Dinosaur Land -- only she doesn't know it. So Koopa (I'll get to him in a minute) sends two of his cousins to our Earth to fetch our Daisy, in part for some fascinating sex lust that's only touched upon, but mostly because she wears a crystal around her neck that's Koopa's key to merging the two universes and, I quote, "KILLLLLIN THE MAMAMAMALS!" Daisy is kidnapped and taken through a dimensional portal, followed by her new plumber pals in hot pursuit. When all is said and done, Mario and Luigi are trapped in the parallel universe; a version of New York City riddled with crime, filth, corruption and funky dinosaur people. Before we move on, let's talk a bit about the live action versions of M & L...

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There's no doubt in my mind that Bob Hoskins and Jon Leguizamo did about as good of a job as anyone could. This couldn't have been an easy undertaking. Hoskins did seem a bit overwhelmed by the role -- not so much by forgetting his lines or giving a dreadful performance or anything like that, but more by the way he maintains this silent "WHAT...THE HELL...AM I DOING" ambiance throughout the entire flick. This guy was so on the cusp of really hitting the big time for a while there, but somehow his career trailed off to Super Mario Bros. and...I dunno, Hook? You can totally read his mind in this film, and the shit I was saw in there portrayed absolutely no joy over being Super Mario. I'm not ruling out that the entire film was done in a single take and he just really had to piss. It's kind of the same face.

Leguizamo? Good, definitely good. I've seen the guy in everything from Spun to Spawn, and I'm convinced that he's a sociopath. In a good way. When an actor can go from playing a drug addict who masturbates with a sock to a 550-pound clown from Hell who sings songs about six-year-old girls' asses before kicking off a months-long standup comedy tour about horny grandmothers, you have to believe that they've gone a bit past simple method acting. Playing Luigi was a cakewalk for Leguizamo. All he had to do was TAWK LIKE DIS CUZ HEZ FROM THE BROOKLYN and occasionally wear green clothes. In Spawn, didn't he have to lick maggots from a discarded baby diaper or some shit? Super Mario Bros. was a total day in the park.

More importantly, do they fit the criteria of what we Nintendo fans think of when envisioning Mario and Luigi on the big screen? I'm not sure I appreciate the question. You had to expect some liberties. It's not like they could've had Hoskins yell "woo hoo" over and over again with Luigi repeating whatever he said in a slightly deeper voice. They're plumbers and they're good guys, and Mario's the fatter of the two. That's all we could've asked for. A Koribo's Shoe for Mario would've been a nice concession, but there's always the sequel. Then again, he did kinda have a Kuribo's Shoe. Only it was made of metal. Yes.

Samantha Mathis does okay as "Princess Daisy," a role that requires her to be everything from Luigi's love interest to a damsel in distress to the heir apparent of a world full of dinosaurs to a chick who was left on a church porch at night in egg-form, waiting to hatch. I'm serious on all counts. Yes folks, Daisy has spent her life on Earth (the regular Earth, I mean) totally not knowing that she's reptilian deep down. This seems rather impossible, but so does the fact that Daisy's dad, long thought dead, currently exists in the parallel dimension of Earth only as an ever-growing snotty fungus which occasionally helps out the heroes by crapping out Bob-Ombs. It's been said that the storyline for Super Mario Bros. was conceived by a talking giraffe under the influence of six bourbons, tryptophan, LSD and enough "Fun Dip" candy to fill a sandbox.

Okay, so they're on Earth: Version Dino or whatever, and Princess Daisy is being held captive by unspeakably evil forces. I don't think Mario fans would've possibly forgiven the filmmakers had they excluded the almighty King Koopa from the festivities, but no worries, he's here. Sort of. King Koopa is sort of Dennis Hopper.

Instead of the Koopa we all know and love, Hopper's version is an evolved form of the T-Rex, plainly human to the eye, who rules the dinosaur town with an iron fist. Ambivalent towards his kingdom, Koopa dreams of richer successes by way of merging the two Earths and destroying the mammals. It's a brazen plot, but at least it justifies all the shit Mario and Luigi go through in a method much better than just having them fall through a dimensional portal and decide to make the most of it by fighting bad guys. I don't think I've disliked Hopper in any role he's had -- from where I sit, the biggest point of the guy's resume is his ability to make the most poorly written, terrible characters into something remotely interesting. Waterworld was a sea of shit until Hopper ARRR'd his way into view on that big floating pie, and don't get me started on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. Whenever a casting director faces a movie character scripted to eat bugs or speak of his unholy intentions only in rhyme, Dennis Hopper is always on the short list.

Obviously, this isn't the kind of Koopa fans were expecting. There's a few scenes of reptilian action (Hopper flicks a forked tongue; his eyes sometimes turn "reptile red"), but mostly it's just Hopper as you always knew him, albeit with a zanier haircut. He doesn't spit fireballs or hop towards Bob Hoskins in a big teacup painted up like a circus clown, so I guess we'd have to classify this as a "reimagining" of the original premise. Anything to avoid calling it crap.

Welcome to the new Mushroom Kingdom, truly the film's redeeming factor. You can rail on the film all you want, but after seeing the immensely detailed sets where ten trillion things are always going on at once, you can't argue that they weren't trying. It's the kind of thing that really helped move Dick Tracy and Gremlins 2 along to personal cult favorite status for me -- you're not just watching the typical settings dressed up to look're actually going right into a stupid new world. Once the plumbers leave Earth, there's not a set in the movie that seems to be modified from some existing location. Even the simple things like police stations and tunnels are dolled up to the alien max. The script of Super Mario Bros. goes in one ear and out the other; it's really the film's visual power that helps it become so escapist. Plus, in the alien version of Earth, one of the bars is named "Bullet Bill's." For this I rate the movie A+.

Though the locals are mostly your usual Hollywood lot of mean-spirited, dirty ol' transients and urban freaks, they'll often show some sides of their inner reptiles. Instead of being fat, pregnant woman roll big snake eggs around in baby strollers. Instead of ordering hot dogs from city street vendors, pedestrians opt for a more true-to-form snack...

Fried. Anole. Sandwich.

When you heard about the Mario Brothers hitting the big screen, did it ever once cross your mind that you might see people eating dead, fried lizards? I mean, I thought I was going to see Audrey II bust out of a pipe and chew Bob Hoskins. I was pretty sure we'd see Mario dress up like a raccoon and hopscotch across giant turtles. My point is, I can't believe the film actually managed to surprise me. Yeah, it sucks that I wanted invincibility stars and ended up with fried lizards, but at least I didn't see it coming.

Oh, remember the "Goombas?" The lovable, deadly little mushroom creatures that plagued Mario's spirit for the better part of eighty-seven video game adventures? Arguably the single most iconic enemy of the Mario Brothers? Well, they're back, but instead of being 2' mushroom boppers, now they're 8' lizard warriors with tiny heads. It's Koopa's army!

See, there's this whole subplot I really wanted to avoid talking about, but since I've already lost 96% of the readers thirty paragraphs up, might as well go for a clean slate. Koopa has all of these devices that let him either evolve or "de-evolve" whomever he's targeting. In a late scene, he reverts a slimy Earth human into an unassuming chimp. No less of a dick to his own people, Koopa rounds up "criminals" and keeps 'em locked away until he gets bored and wants to shrink someone else's head. Once he's done, another would-be criminal has become a boundlessly loyal Goomba henchman. With an awfully cute tiny head.

There's two dance sequences in the film. During one, Mario tries to retrieve a stolen crystal by wearing a yellow jumpsuit and dancing with the alien locals. In another, Luigi distracts the Goombas by making them dance and hum nursery rhymes. I'm having trouble deciding which dance sequence to spend the most time complaining about.

Fans of the games are sure to get a kick out of "Yoshi," now represented as a friendly raptor who befriends Daisy and never once tries to eat her. He's no longer vibrantly green, nor does he ever turn blue and start flying, but the big whipping tongue remains intact.

I have no idea who that chick is, but she's by far the best character in the movie. Introduced as a crystal-stealing powerhouse, Large Mystery Woman punches with reckless abandon and hops from place to place using these really neat spring-loaded boots. Later in the film, Mario and Luigi realize just how important the crystal is, so they set out to get it back. Fortunately, the dinosaur version of Earth is indeed a small world, and they locate Large Mystery Woman with ease, tearing up the dance floor at the local moose lounge. This leads to the dance sequence I talked about earlier, with Mario using his fat plumber charms to woo Large Mystery Woman into the kind of foot-flipping dance duet capable of clearing out a movie theater in thirty seconds flat.

Instead of beating Mario up for the discretion, Large Mystery Woman takes pity on his situation with Koopa's hired goons. (there's good people and bad people in Koopaland, but they all hate the Koop) After giving the heroes pairs of the same spring-loaded megaboots, L.M.S. bids farewell to Mario with the sloppiest kiss this side of Bugs and Elmer. Keep in mind, Mario's real girlfriend is in the parallel dimension as well -- she's one of Koopa's captives. Despite being connected to virtually every major plot point of the film, Mario's gal manages to remain a completely unimportant character not worth mentioning. There's got to be a skill involved with that, but to skirt any research, I'll just name Large Mystery Woman the best female in Super Mario Bros. besides Daisy and "Lena," another major character I forgot to mention. Oops.

UPDATE: A few readers have pointed out -- and I swear I'm not kidding -- that Large Mysterious Woman is in fact based on a giant enemy fish from the Super Mario games. In the extended universe of Mario lore, the big fish had a crush on our hero. I'm as shocked as you are.

With the aid of a Bob-omb (yes!), Mario and Luigi manage to stop Koopa's reign, ultimately using one of his very own de-evolution guns to transform him into a puddle of green slime. Everyone celebrates, yadda yadda yadda. There's a weird ending that seems to be paving way for a sequel, but when a movie barely recoups half of its budgeted and is generally credited for inspiring thousands to become scathing movie critics because it's just so easy to rip apart, sequels rarely come to fruition.

I'm not going to get into the big subplot with the slimy fungus. See the movie if you can't live without that knowledge.

I know this review has been pretty scatterbrained. I've been piecing it together over the past week, paragraph here paragraph there, usually during the commercial breaks of old Seinfeld reruns. I've learned my lesson. As for Super Mario Bros., really...give it a shot. Time heals all wounds, and the bittersweet punch of being thrown a Super Mario movie that had little to do with Super Mario is a lot softer now than it was back in '93. There's plenty to appreciate within the film. Lots of likable stars, a totally offbeat story that remains faithful to itself from start to finish, and a couple of Bob-ombs. If you've never seen it, trust me -- you won't hate it anywhere near as much as you thought you would. Might not like it, but these are the risks we take when we fork over 2.50 for a DVD from a local gas station's gift shop.

-- Matt (6/232004)