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Why the Super Mario movie is an underappreciated masterpiece

8:00 AM on 02.20.2015 // Anthony Burch

There used to be dinosaurs in Brooklyn

[Ed. note: El Great Burcho published this on February 2007. It's one of our Golden favorites.]

No, I'm not being ironic, or corny, or funny. Neither am I drunk, stoned, nor under the influence of outside forces requiring me to like the Super Mario Bros movie anymore than I already do.

I simply wish to inform you, the reader, as to the reasons why it seems to get an undeservedly bad vibe from the gaming community at large, and why we should all treat it with a hell of a lot more respect than we really do. 

Do you think you're prepared for how long this article is going to be?

You have no idea how long this article is going to be.

Hit the jump for a prepared dosage of cinematic excellence, complete with screencaps of my favorite bits.

The special effects.


You've gotta give them credit where credit is due: while the blue screen shots are very easy to spot with my older, wiser, not-eight-years-old-and-therefore-prone-to-believe-everything-I-see-in-a-movie-is-real eyes, the FX shots have so far managed to stand the test of time. Whether we're talking about the CGI shots (like, say, Koopa and Mario disintegrating between both worlds at the very end) or the practical puppetwork (the Goombas), it's hard to complain about the quality of how the effects themselves were pulled off. Hell, nine years later The Mummy even ripped off the "face in the sand" effect seen above.


Bob Hoskins as Mario.


Complain all you want about Luigi's lack of mustache, but you can't deny that casting Bob Hoskins as Mario was a stroke of genius. He nails the accent, and manages to make a well-developed character out of what was essentially written as a two-dimensional cartoon. In case you didn't know, Hoskins -- who also played badass Eddie Valiant in Who Framed Roger Rabbit -- is one of the most versatile British actors still alive today. For God's sake, the man played Iago in Othello, and he had the balls to play a fatass, Italian plumber for a children's movie. And evidently, he didn't even know that Super Mario Bros was based on a video game: after already accepting the job, he went home and told his son, who promptly went apeshit and showed daddy the video game. I can only assume that by this point, it was too late for him to back out of the film.


The girl who plays Daisy is really cute.


Look at her. Pouty lips, big eyes, hot eyebrows...she's like my dream girl, except not cheating on me with a 24-year-old guitarist from an underground Emo band.


Gave John Leguizamo his start.


I think this is a good thing. Regardless, he wasn't bad as Luigi, and this is the film that allowed him to make the jump from standup comic to big-screen actor. Granted, it only took a couple of years for him to make the same jump in the exact opposite direction, but you get my point.


Mario does some actual goddamn plumbing.


Look! Look! See that picture? Mario, the plumber, is actually doing some plumbing that doesn't involve jumping into a pipe. Until Superstar Saga, this was the only evidence we had of the fact that Mario occasionally, you know, works.


Political satire.




In case you can't read, the poster behind Koopa reads "KOOPA THE ENVIRONMENTALIST," and he's holding a chainsaw. It's not exactly Jonathan Swift, but you have to admit that, it's pretty clever viewed in the context of a kids' movie.  In changing Koopa from a king to a president, whilst keeping all of his fascist traits, the writers simultaneously made the film (A) more accessible, and (B) more socially relevant. Plus, we get a lot of cool-looking "VOTE KOOPA" posters, complete with pictures of Dennis Hopper kissing babies. Come on, it's pretty clever.


It taught us Super Mario's last name.


It makes sense that their last names would be Mario, considering you don't usually classify siblings by the first name of the most popular one (e.g., my sister and I are not "The Anthony Siblings") -- but nobody really put two and two together until the movie did it for us. Mario Mario and Luigi Mario. Say what you will about the canonicity of the film, many fans (myself included) still accept that Super Mario's last name is the same as his first. You can reject everything else about the film, but this aspect of it has still endured over the years.


The set design.


Sets like those in Super Mario Bros really make me miss the 90's: it was a time when CGI was too expensive and risky to use in great quantities, thus requiring the use of practical sets and special effects. Honestly, look at that city; it's only used in about two scenes, but it's extremely, extremely detailed on a Blade Runner kind of level. Neon lights, huge crowds, big buildings...after films like Mario Bros and Dark City, this kind of set workmanship doesn't exist anymore. 


The Goombas.


One of the main critiques of the Mario Bros movie during its release was that it was too scary and adult for kids, but too silly and childish for adults. While I loved the flick as a kid, I can now see what those reviewers meant: the Goombas are pretty fucking creepy. They're about nine feet tall with heads the size of my fist, they never speak in anything but guttural gibberish, and their faces are WAY too expressive. The Goombas are a case of special effects done too well: despite the limited surface area of their faces, the Goombas are capable of expressing pretty much every emotion known to man. This is kind of cool, but also kind of terrifying. I'm not even sure if this is necessarily one of the movie's good points, but it bears mentioning nonetheless.


Some of the dialogue is pretty funny.

Not knee-slapping hilarious, but clever:


Luigi: That’s incredible. There used to be dinosaurs in Brooklyn?

Mario: Don’t get excited, Luigi. There used to be Dodgers, too.



Radio: Be on the lookout for two aliens…

Luigi: What, now we gotta deal with aliens, too?!

Mario: Luigi, we’re the aliens!

Luigi: We are?

(Mario nods)

Luigi: Woah, cool!


Spike (pointing at Koopa): Fascist!

Iggy (also pointing at Koopa): Oppressor of the proletariat!

Koopa (pointing at himself): Guy in charge.


Anthony Anderson's first big role.


I kid, I kid.


The most unintentionally slow chase scene ever filmed.


While most of this list is filled with genuinely great things about this movie, even I can't ignore how bad the sewer chase scene is: after rescuing some kidnapped girls from the Goomba lair, Mario and the hostages grab a mattress and proceed to surf down the frozen sewer pipes, at which point they are pursued by the Goombas. I don't know why, but the way the chase is filmed makes it feel as if the characters are moving at roughly two miles an hour -- and sadly, it's the major setpiece of the film (I used to have a glow-in-the-dark-poster depicting this scene). It's hard not to watch the scene and laugh at how utterly unexciting it is, but therein lies the film's accidental genius: you just laughed at how bad the chase was! You are unintentionally enjoying yourself! Ha! 


The evil granny.




She comes out of nowhere and doesn't really fit the tone for the rest of the movie, but at one point Mario and Luigi are mugged by a cattle-prod-wielding granny who shrieks, "I WANT KOOPA KOINS! I WANT KOOPA KOINS!" She's only around for about ten seconds before Anthony Anderson throws her into traffic, but the granny remains one of the more memorable (and sadly, one of the most well-developed) characters in the film.


The grossest prop/character ever designed.


When Koopa took over, he de-evolved the previous Mushroom King into his primordial state of fungus.



The entire plot is actually a tweaked version of Hamlet. 

The old Mushroom King (King Hamlet) is de-evolved (killed) by King Koopa (Claudius), and it's up to an inexperienced hero (Mario/Luigi) to restore balance to the kingdom by avenging the king. Daisy is Ophelia and Spike and Iggy are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Except, you know, nobody dies. 


Mario and Luigi's leisure suits.


Lookin' gooooood.




Mario stands on a bridge, weaponless and defenseless. King Koopa stands across from him, armed with a flamethrower. What does Mario do? He takes out the small windup bomb given to him by the old,  fungi-fied king and proceeds to wind it. Koopa squints, trying to see what he's doing. Suddenly, the realization hits him:


At this point, everyone in the city sees what Mario has in his hands, and they proceed to FREAK THE FUCK OUT. Cars crash, people trample each other in an effort to run away, and chaos generally ensues. All based around a small black ball wearing plastic Reebok shoes (seriously, the Reebok logo is on the Bob-ombs shoes. I'm not posting a capture of it, you'll have to look for yourself). There isn't a kid alive who saw the movie and didn't want one of these.


Dennis Hopper actually signed up to play a giant, evil lizard.


And I haven't the slightest idea why. Did they lie to him and say he wasn't going to have the silliest hairdo ever put on film? Or did they fail to mention that he spends an entire scene up to his neck in mud? I don't get it, but it's damn entertaining to watch one of the guys who starred in Easy Rider shoot fireballs at a mustachioed Shakespearean actor.


This waiter.




He's at the very beginning of the movie. WORSHIP HIS MULLET AND YE WILL FIND TRUE ENLIGHTENMENT.




The inclusion of Yoshi is pretty damn cool. He shows up about halfway through the third act,which is when most movies choose to stop introducting new characters. So, if you're a fan of the games, you've been looking for references, waiting for your favorite characters, and so on -- by the time Mario and Luigi don their trademark costumes, you assume that we've already gotten all the Mario characters we're gonna get. But, who is that small, chained dinosaur in Daisy's cell? It's Yoshi! How cool! And he has at least one of his abilities from the game (his long tongue), and he actually uses it to help Daisy (he trips up Koopa's bitch of a wife and helps Daisy escape)! Of course, he gets stabbed in the throat soon after he does so and we never see him again, but it's still the thought that counts. 


The "meteorite bluffing" scene.


At the very end, when Mario and Koopa face off, we've been led to believe that the meteorite piece Daisy keeps as a necklace is the most important item in the movie: by reuniting the shard with the meteorite that killed the dinosaurs,  the universe's two parallel dimensions will merge and Koopa will be able to take over Earth. Koopa has it in his mouth and all seems lost, until Mario bitchslaps him in the back of the head and Koopa drops the rock to the street below.

Mario, knowing that he has to give Luigi time to make it to the rock, decides to bluff. He takes off one of his shoelaces and holds it in his hand, pretending that he is actually holding Daisy's meteorite necklace. "You want the rock? Come and get it!"

This scene is cool for two reasons. Firstly, it shows that Mario is a pretty smart sonofabitch. Secondly, it allows the viewer to avoid the annoying cliche where the hero and the villain fight over a small, precious object, constantly trying to balance their desire to kill one another with their desire to get the object back. Considering Mario and Luigi are in two different places at the film's climax, Mario's decision to bluff allows the viewer to be worried for both characters at the same time: if Mario actually had the rock, we wouldn't care about Luigi, and if Luigi had it, then there'd be no reason for Mario and Koopa to fight. From a screenwriting point of view, Mario's bluff is actually a pretty clever way of avoiding cliche and keeping the suspense up for both protagonists.


The "de-evolution gun" is just a spray painted Super Scope.


Cool, huh? 

Awkward pre-9/11 use of the World Trade Center towers in a destructive capacity! 


Eeeeeeeesh. Moving on. 


The sheer number of references to the video game.


Including, but not limited to: Bertha the fish, Kuribo's shoe, Bullet Bill, Thwomp, Mushroom Kingdom, Toad, Yoshi, the Koopa Kids, Boom-Boom, Wigglers, Snifits, Fry Guy, Ostro, Bob-Omb, Mario and Luigi's use of the peace sign, the mushroom powerup, the climax's recreation of the end boss fight from Super Mario World, Koopa Troopas, and Goombas.

And people complain that the movie isn't faithful enough to the video game. Come on.


The "let's make a sequel" ending. 


If there's a more depressing type of ending than the "please let us make a sequel" cliffhanger, I don't know what it is. When Daisy, clad in super-hot battle gear kicks open the door to Mario's flat and declares that "I need your help," the movie joins the ranks of The Italian Job and Serenity as one of those films whose hypothetical sequel had great potential that was never realized. 


So, there you have it. If you've already seen the movie, I hope you have a new  appreciation for it. If you haven't seen it, I hope you do. It's great for nostalgia value, if nothing else. 

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