Super Mario Bros.

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As an audience member one can either watch Super Mario Bros. (1993) with the expectation that it will be faithful to the Nintendo games or that it will embrace the unhinged vision of its directing team Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton. Sadly, most viewers seem to go into Super Mario Bros. expecting a degree of fidelity to the source material that is wholly antithetical to cinematic art. For those who can’t see Super Mario Bros. as a subversive exercise that takes a popular intellectual property and turns it into a post-modernist Marxist family adventure there is always the animated film The Super Mario Brothers (2023) which prioritizes fan service and the quick buck.

Bob Hoskins, John Leguizamo, Dennis Hopper, Samantha Mathis, Fisher Stevens, Richard Edson, and Fiona Shaw just chew up the scenery like campy Saturday morning cartoons come to life. The thesis behind these performances is that the actors are taking a children’s game and making it flesh. Logic, reason, physics, etc. have no domain in the dramatic or narrative economy of Super Mario Bros. where one has to “trust the fungus” to survive. It’s a world where the giant evil turtle of the game is rendered as an inept business tycoon à la the forty-fifth president of the United States and franchised plumbing businesses are the cruelest instrument of a capitalist system.

The production design reflects this synthesis by manifesting as an industrial shadow of Manhattan where pipes, rails, and wires criss-cross- illogically through spaces that are vaguely familiar. The fantastic world of highly evolved dinosaurs is very much like our own if we took just one step further into the terrifying void of greed and corruption that characterizes capitalism. The look of Super Mario Bros. is a cross between the subterranean nightmare of Alien From L.A. (1988) and Blade Runner (1982) while constantly reflecting the hazardous conditions under which the film was made.

Every stroke of Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future (1985) level genius in Super Mario Bros. is matched by an unashamed moment of escapist bliss. Mario and Luigi are charming and silly working stiffs thrust into an Orwellian world. Super Mario Bros. is a hip and progressive piece of allegory packaged as a blockbuster that looks like a B-movie auteur’s dream. Super Mario Bros. defies easy categorization because it is so many things at once and so audacious in every way.

The spectator looks at Super Mario Bros. and is bombarded with laughs, spectacles, and ideas all in rapid succession. A first panicked reaction may be too identify some aspect of the familiar video games and then shun the film when that access is denied. But Super Mario Bros. begs the viewer to take the film at face value and just go along for the ride. Rest assured, Chris Pratt’s Mario could never be as memorable as Bob Hoskins and nobody will be there to teach the goombas how to dance.