Junkfood Cinema: Super Mario Bros.

By  · Published on June 4th, 2010

Welcome back to Junkfood Cinema; the burning means it’s working. This is the weekly movie column that does its small part to battle piracy by highlighting several films no one in their right mind would ever want to download. These movies lack a certain (or in some cases any semblance of) artistic merit, but they have managed to strike the fancy of one completely insane film critic who refuses to let them just go away. I will be upfront about the flaws these films harbor but I’ll also gush about what qualifies them as my choicest guilty pleasures. To fulfill contractual obligations and keep the name of the column, I will also pair each film with a delightfully unhealthy snack food to enhance your viewing experience.

This week, the world was dealt a tremendous blow as one of its greatest actors passed away. As much as I like Gary Coleman, I am actually speaking of Sir Dennis Hopper (knighted by Pabst Blue Ribbon). In all seriousness, Hopper has had unforgettable performances in some of America’s most seminal films: Easy Rider, Blue Velvet, Apocalypse Now, True Romance…the list continues. It was a daunting task selecting just one title from such an impressive cannon of work but I have decided that I will honor Dennis by examining one of his most celebrated films: Super Mario Bros.

What Makes It Bad

This is a film adaptation of a video game, so inherently there are going to be major problems. If I had a nickel for every terrible video game movie in existence, I would have more than a few nickels. The whimsical, upbeat story behind the game was apparently deemed too chipper for a major Hollywood production and was replaced by one of the most absurd plots in existence. In what basically amounts to a bad Planet of the Apes ripoff, a meteor blasts the Earth into two parallel dimensions. The dimension we occupy is controlled by humans (or mammals as they are referred by the residents of the other dimension in expletive form). Meanwhile the other dimension, that apparently got the short end of the stick, is a fungal, industrial nightmare where man evolved from dinosaurs! Take that Darwin!

The elements of the game show up primarily in name only. Yes, there is a princess and a guy named Koopa and the two brothers are plumbers, but little beyond that made the transition from 8 bit to 35mm. Sure, there is an apt argument to be made for the fact that certain aspects would have to be sacrificed lest the film not be taken seriously. But in a defiant move against its own credibility, the film replaces the silly, omitted aspects of the game with all new, even dumber aspects. The de-evolving machine, the rocket boots, and early 90’s music existing in a separate dimension more than fill the void of goofiness left by the absence of question mark boxes or ghosts who only follow you when your back is turned.

The biggest problem with Super Mario Bros is…well let’s face it, the biggest problem is that it’s an enormous turd burger. But more specifically the problem I have with it is how completely wasted is its cast. Bob Hoskins, one of my favorite actors of all time, is far too good for this film. Ignoring the fact that Hollywood forced this card-carrying Brit to struggle through a bad New York accent, the material he has to work with and the moments he is given are far too silly for his talents. Not to say Hoskins can’t do silly, Who Framed Roger Rabbit was brilliant, but there was still a level of classiness to the character that actually fed the comedy. In Super Mario Bros, he’s such a schlub to begin with that the jokes fall hopelessly flat.

And as to our featured artist this week, Dennis Hopper, I am sorry to say he is equally wasted; unfortunately wasted in a way that doesn’t involve opium. As a villain, Hopper has always been a special kind of awesome and if you are expecting to see that in Super Mario Brothers, I would highly suggest you find contentment in the game instead. He tries to bring his signature level of intensity and weirdness to the role of King Koopa to improve the writing, but to no avail. The only thing remotely interesting about Koopa in the film is the fact that he apparently gets his hair cut by Frito Lay. But if you feel you can’t die until you see Dennis Hopper express his long-hidden hatred for the plumbing profession, book your funeral now Skippy.

Why I Love It!

Like many terrible films for which I have an affinity, this one is born of my inability to abandon my own childhood. This arrested development is what gives me the power to look at the bad characters, dirt cheap production values, and mindless drivel of a plot and fashion a wide grin across my face. I loved this movie as a kid, but even that love was predicated on my even greater love for the video game. At the time, I would have watched stop motion popsicle-stick people for two hours if you had told me it was a Super Mario Brothers film. But oddly I still disliked the Super Mario Bros Super Show…hmmm.

Loving this movie can easily be equated to pity sex. It’s not a pretty film and has far more faults than merits. But because we grew up together, I feel bad for it so I’ll get in bed with it when no one else will. Wow, I’m pretty sure I need to fire my shrink because I just made my own disgusting breakthrough. I really do embrace the hoaky b.s. running rampant in this film. I chuckle at the prologue each and every time as some schmuck from the neighborhood tries to explain the extinction of the dinosaurs, “guhbye dina-sohrs!” Side note: that narrator is The Simpsons’ Dan Castellaneta. I also find it fitting that this is based on an 8 bit video game since the effects are so god-awful.

As much as it spits on everything that made the game great, I kind of enjoy the concept…kind of. The dirty, nasty world replacing the lush green or sterile, icy platform levels of the video game was sort of intriguing. I found it hilarious that it was a world so overrun with crime and scum that even little old ladies commit armed robbery. I actually thought the film was set in Detroit until she asked for Koopa coins. Mostly I just like that it’s an excuse for Dennis Hopper to exhibit spieces envy and give several speeches about how unfair it is that mammals got the good dimension. As much as I jest, Hopper really is deliciously weird in this film and a lot of fun to watch. Rest in peace good sir.

Say what you will about the casting, but I love the pairing of Hoskins and Leguizamo if for no other reason than there is absolutely no reason these two should be in a film together. The relationship between them seems indicative of how they would interact in the real world; with Hoskins doing his best to tolerate the incessantly annoying Leguizamo whilst staving off a heart attack. I’m also a big fan of Fisher Stevens and seeing him outside of his brown-face act from Short Circuit is always a treat. Samantha Mathis as princess Daisy is cute as a button, but her acting in this emphasizes why she should only ever do voice work (this film coming out the year after her turn in FernGully).

I do like the more subtle incorporation of video game elements into the film. The currency being koopa coins is cool, although I do wish someone had to step on a turtle to get them. I also like that Koopa was able to take over the kingdom by transforming the king into a giant fungus…not the same as a dog or a cute little lizard but still reminiscent of the last level of every world of Super Mario Brothers III. While I like the fact that Yoshi looks like a left over effect from Jurassic Park but I wish he’d been just a bit more vicious…or maybe digested Koopa and deposited him as an egg? No, that’s too much.

Junkfood Pairing: Fried Mushrooms

The film does maintain the importance of mushrooms to the Mario Brothers universe. Although I wish the finale of the film had featured Mario growing to gargantuan size instead of just the mushroom. But that won’t stop me from battering a truckload of button mushrooms and deep frying them until I can hear my arteries clogging as I pile them on a plate. As you watch the sheer amount of fungus that dominates this movie, enjoy this greasy treat. Remember kids, it’s not a vegetable if you fry it.

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Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.