Much to the surprise and delight of many, Pokémon: Detective Pikachu is rather good. Sure, it’s not great and there’s so much more it could have done to pay off its amazing set-up of ‘Roger Rabbit but with Pokémon’, but it fulfilled its promise and audiences were satisfied. As of the writing of this post, the film has made back its $150 million budget and talk has already begun of possible sequels. There’s even been debate that the movie is the best video game adaptation ever made. Of course, competition for that top spot isn’t exactly tough. What makes Detective Pikachu all the more fascinating is that it’s a rare step into cinema for Nintendo. The beloved company behind some of the most successful video game consoles and characters ever have by and large avoided getting into bed with Hollywood. Given how popular their games are and how instantly recognizable those brands are to worldwide audiences, you would think that a big-screen adaptation would be a slam dunk. Yet it’s taken until 2019 for someone to put Pokémon in a major Hollywood movie. In a couple of years, we’ll get an animated Super Mario movie courtesy of Illumination, the company that spawned the Minions. So clearly, they’re more positive about preserving the sanctity of their product now than they were 30 years ago. In fairness, we all saw what happened there.
Look at any list of the worst films ever made and the chances are you’ll see 1993’s Super Mario Bros. somewhere in-between Gigli and Plan 9 From Outer Space. Widely agreed upon to be one of Hollywood’s more misguided creative decisions, the adaptation of Nintendo’s most beloved series - and I use the word ‘adapted’ very loosely - was a critical disaster, a financial flop, and a baffling collection of choices made by people who should have known better. Nowadays, it’s remembered with a sort of camp novelty, a near mythic movie that feels like a parody of when stories are told by boardroom votes and market research rather than actual creators. The film is its own Onion article, a melting pot of every cliché you’ve ever heard about clueless studio executives feeling the need to make every story ‘dark and edgy’. When asked these three questions in an interview with The Guardian - ‘What is the worst job you’ve done?’, ‘What has been your biggest disappointment?’, and ‘If you could edit your past, what would you change?’ - Bob Hoskins responded each time with Super Mario Bros.
But is it really that bad?
Yeah. Yeah, it’s pretty awful, but boy is it a fascinating car crash of ideas, choices, and dripping fungi.
The baffling decisions behind Super Mario Bros. begin at its conception. The film was actually something of a passion project for director Roland Joffé, a two time Oscar nominee who is best known for weighty and socially conscious dramas like The Killing Fields and The Mission. Joffé promised the head honchos at Nintendo that they would have creative control over the project, but they didn’t mind all that much about such things, seeing the Mario brand as strong enough to withstand whatever creative experiment Joffé intended with the characters. The script went through a few writers, and producers even looked at getting Harold Ramis to direct it, but he turned it down despite being a fan of the games. Eventually, Joffé turned to Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton. The British duo had made their names directing music videos for the likes of Talking Heads but their real claim to fame had been Max Headroom, the cult TV series that was a fascinating flash in the pan. Morton and Jankel decided to root their take on this world in reality, more Blade Runner than anything seen in the games, and described the story as a prequel of sorts that would act as a meta ‘true story’ for the well-known Mario narrative. Nowadays, giving a major blockbuster property to an unknown director with only one or two films to their name is par for the course, but doing this in the age of Spielberg was a whole other hoopla.
The casting process pushed forward a number of big name possibilities for the three leading roles. Tom Hanks was considered for Luigi but he’d had a few box office flops at the time that saw him dropped from consideration (what a lucky man). Danny DeVito was, unsurprisingly, up for the part of Mario. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Michael Keaton were both approached to play Koopa, but someone decided that Frank Booth himself, Dennis Hopper, was the natural choice for the dino-villain. Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo were cast as the brothers themselves, although Hoskins was a hard sell given that he thought the script was crap. Things didn’t get any more secure once filming started, and the studio demanded major rewrites for make the movie more suitable for kids, which the directors weren’t happy about, which makes you wonder why they wanted to make a family movie in the first place. Reports swirled that Morton and Jankel never finished directing the shoot, although they later denied that. Morton did admit that he and Jankel were briefly locked out of the editing room until the DGA intervened on their behalf.
But what of the movie itself? Watching Super Mario Bros. now is a fascinating dive into the ’90s and all its excesses. You can tell in the most abstract sense possible that this is indeed an adaptation of the Mario games, but everything is just exaggerated to a confusing degree. The adorable mushrooms in the game are now rotting fungus that hangs from every possible surface and churn the stomachs of the viewers. The instantly recognizable Goombas that Mario bops on the head have been turned into oversized reptiles with teeny heads and ghoulish smiles. Bowser, still known as King Koopa here, is literally just Frank Booth from Blue Velvet without the Pabst Blue Ribbon. And the vibrant, colourful setting that Mario explores? It’s now a parallel universe called Dinohatten that’s basically a dystopian hellscape version of Earth where everyone descended from dinosaurs rather than apes. Once again, this is a real movie and people got paid to make these decisions.
It’s hard to believe that Super Mario Bros. was a film made by people who actually like the Mario games. While it’s clearly aiming for a tone closer to sardonic than serious - although I would hesitate to call it satirical as the directors did - its approach to the material feels like it was made by people who were told to avoid everything that made the games so unique and beloved. This is a common mentality in Hollywood, unfortunately. Just look at that trailer for Sonic the Hedgehog. These properties are incredibly valuable and mean a lot to their fans but that is never seen as reason enough to just adapt them as they are. Everything has to be made darker, more rooted in realism, more appealing to teenage boys, or at least the stereotype of teenage boys imagined by a cigar chomping studio executive four times their age. As is so often the case, the end result is a film for everyone that appeals to absolutely nobody.
That’s not to say there isn’t some kind of pleasure to be gleamed from watching Super Mario Bros. As with any true mega flop, it’s utterly fascinating and full of moments that are too strange to dismiss as mere Hollywood meddling. The production design is often thrilling, even if it’s a tonal nightmare, and the effects looks pretty great for their time, although they would be rendered utterly archaic only a fortnight after the film’s release thanks to something called Jurassic Park. The best flops are made by people who cared, and despite the sheer wrong-headedness of it, the people who made Super Mario Bros. clearly cared and thought they were working on something special. For some fans, the film is special enough to warrant nostalgic affection. I watched it way too many times as a kid to entirely hate it, even though watching it now is kind of a slog. In 2019, as video game adaptations get kind of better but still struggle to go beyond ‘mostly good’ in quality, Super Mario Bros. stands as the ultimate cautionary tale in cinematic adaptation theory. My guess is that Illumination will play things a little safer.
Header Image Source: Nintendo // Buena Vista Pictures Distribution