It’s often said that video game movies are uniformly terrible. This is almost true. In fact, there are a handful of video game movies which range from good to great: Tron, War Games, The Last Starfighter, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Wreck-It Ralph, and The King of Kong all manage to successfully evoke the joy that comes from hunkering down with a bag of Cheetos and a joystick. You may notice, however, that all of these films have one thing in common: not a single one is actually based on a video game. Movies and video games are structured about as differently as two forms of narrative fiction can be. It’s hard to create a two-hour, three-act feature film from a game that consists of several days worth of walking right and dying. With the possible exception of Takashi Miike’s Phoenix Wright movie (which hasn’t made it over here yet, but looks amazing), there has yet to be a cinematic video game adaptation which holds together as anything but a lazy, muddled studio cash-grab.
All that being said, let me tell you how much I love the Super Mario Bros. movie.
When Super Mario Bros. was released to theaters, I was eight years old, and had just received my first Super Nintendo seven months prior. It had taken me longer than my peers to jump on the Nintendo train, but when I fell, I fell hard. I had subscriptions to Nintendo Power and GamePro, and would scour yard sales and flea markets for anything and everything with Mario’s face on it (keep in mind that this was a few years after the initial wave of Nintendo fever crested; merchandise was at a low point). Later that year, I would go so far as to ask my mom to stitch me a Yoshi Halloween costume, complete with enormous felt head and a red kneesock on my arm serving as a tongue. It’s not that I was undiscriminating, necessarily– I was preternaturally suspicious of remakes, and outspoken in my disinterest in the Ninja Turtles– but there was no way a Super Mario Brothers adaptation was going to come out in 1993 and not instantly become my favorite movie.
Okay, look: I’m aware that Super Mario Bros. is not a very good movie. The script is an incoherent jumble, which, unsurprisingly, has little to do with the game (though, to be fair, I have no idea what a “faithful” live-action Mario adaptation would look like) and, bizarrely, borrows a lot from Buckaroo Banzai. The late Bob Hoskins, cast (admittedly perfectly) as Mario, considered it the worst choice of his career, and purportedly didn’t realize it was based on a video game until after taking the part. John Leguizamo, nonsensically cast as Luigi, is more forgiving, but has also described the experience as “a nightmare.” Dennis Hopper, who plays a humanoid, corn-rowed King Koopa, explained to his six-year-old son that he made the movie so that he could have shoes; the boy responded “I don’t need shoes that badly!” It’s Exhibit A in any discussion of the Video Game Movie Wasteland, and its box office ensured that its final-scene sequel tease went unanswered.
But man: I loved that fucking movie, without question or reservation. I bought all the action figures, including the hilariously musclebound Dennis Hopper. When it came out on video, I convinced my parents to join the Columbia House Video Club so we could own it before it hit retail shelves. I loved the concept of “de-evolution” (which undoubtedly led to my early embrace of Devo at age ten). I loved the scene of the eight-foot-tall “Goombas” dancing to Slim Whitman in the elevator. I loved the gross fungus growing all over the Blade Runner-esque dystopia (the “Mushroom Kingdom,” get it?). I even loved the scene where Mario goes to a nightclub and dances to George Clinton’s cover of “Walk the Dinosaur” with a statuesque black woman apparently playing a giant fish (it’s a weird movie, okay?). Hell, the movie gave my best friend goddamn night terrors every time we watched it, and we still didn’t stop.
Last month, I mused on my complicated childhood relationship with The NeverEnding Story, a film which I’m not sure I ever enjoyed, but watched repeatedly due to its compellingly mature nature. Super Mario Bros., on the other hand, was a film I loved so unreservedly that I simply didn’t notice how empty it was. However, unlike The NeverEnding Story, I have revisited Super Mario Bros. several times through adolescence and adulthood. Watching through more sophisticated eyes, I can confirm that childhood enthusiasm was maybe misplaced, and that, for all my youthful snottiness, I was just as much in the thrall of corporate machinations as any current fan of The Emoji Movie. But I can also confirm that Super Mario Bros. is deeply, distinctively, fascinatingly weird: a grungy cyberpunk yarn literally coated with mucous, which casually translates cheerful mushroomperson Toad into alternative singer-songwriter Mojo Nixon, essentially playing Mojo Nixon. While far from perfect (or even “serviceable”), it’s a more enjoyable rewatch than many misbegotten childhood favorites (looking at you, Space Jam). In short, it’s an ideal movie for the raucous confines of the Friendly Toast’s ongoing B-Movies and Burgers series, which tonight pairs it with signature burgers, cocktails, and a second feature in Paul WS Anderson’s similarly cockeyed big-screen adaptation of Mortal Kombat. It may not have started a new franchise, but Super Mario Bros. may have a couple of lives left.
Super Mario Bros.
dir. Annabel Jankel & Rocky Morton
Screens Wednesday, 8/9, 6:00 @ Friendly Toast (Cambridge)
Free double feature w/ themed burgers & cocktails!
Presented by Monsters Are Good in honor of Boston Comic-Con