The Cardinal Rules

The Big Dodger in the Sky

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Hollywood Archaeology: The Super Mario Bros. Movie

Unearthing a major disaster to learn the lessons held within

You can learn a lot about the way the movie industry works in a given moment by looking at its successes (whether accidental or engineered), but often you can learn even more by looking at its failures — the long-in-development projects that never make it to the screen, the labors of love gone wrong, the should’ve-been blockbusters that fail to land — particularly those that caught Hollywood by surprise, miscalculations that everyone involved has attempted to sweep under the rug. By digging up some of these misbegotten artifacts and examining them both within the context of their eras and in the cold light of the present, we’ll try to understand how seemingly inexplicable disasters happen.

The Artifact:

Super Mario Bros., theatrically released May 28, 1993. Directed by Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel (creators of Max Headroom); starring Bob Hoskins, John Leguizamo, and Dennis Hopper.

Why It’s Important:

The first feature film based directly on a video game — a feat of adaptation that, arguably, Hollywood is still a long way away from figuring out how to perfect.

The Problem:

Released two weeks before Jurassic Park, it’s possible that Super Mario — which, like Steven Spielberg’s movie, featured well-respected actors engaging with state-of-the-art CGI and a plot dealing with evolution and dinosaurs — would have fallen victim to the zero-sum economics that usually creates a winner and a loser out of two films made around the same time about the same thing (see: Snow White and the Huntsman vs. Mirror Mirror; Capote and … the Other Truman Capote Movie).

But Mario had other problems: The production was a disorganized nightmare that saw the press swiftly transition from rapturously enthusiastic to downright vicious — and, worst of all, the audience didn’t seem to care. When the dust settled, Super Mario grossed more than $20 million, on a reported (usually code for underreported) production budget of $50 million. As an unmitigated disaster, Super Mario is both emblematic of its time and troublingly anticipatory of the worst of our own time. The movie’s plot — to the extent that any lucid story line is discernible in a film cobbled together from drafts worked on by at least nine writers — conjures an alternate universe in which humans descended not from primates, but from dinosaurs. Reading the breathless coverage given to the film in the Hollywood papers, starting in the rumor stages and continuing through its spectacular belly flop, you can almost see an alternate universe in which this could’ve been the big hit of summer 1993 instead of that other dino-studded effects spectacular, a world in which the summer blockbuster as we currently know it might have taken a similarly warped path of evolution.

How It All Went Wrong:

The first Super Mario Brothers game, a vague sequel to the non-super 1983 arcade game Mario Brothers, was bundled with most Nintendo Entertainment System units on its North American debut in 1985. By 1990, Nintendo was well on its way to selling nearly 62 million NESs, about half of them in North America — enough to convince a film industry high on recent crossover kids’ hits like Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Home Alone, and particularly Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles — which was the fifth-highest grossing film of 1990 — that video games were the next source-material gold mine.

In September 1990, Lightmotive, the personal production company of The Killing Fields director Roland Joffe, struck a deal with Nintendo to produce a Mario movie in what company president Ben Myron called a “very competitive situation — all the studios wanted the rights.” Lightmotive won out because they proposed having the film function as a prequel to the game, as the first step in a call-and-response scenario in which movies and game releases would dramatize alternating chapters in the same story. According to Variety, Joffe “never planned to direct, but wanted to [produce] Super Mario Bros. in part to establish a different image for Lightmotive from the heavyweight fare he makes as a director.” In other words, Joffe — who in the previous decade had been nominated for two Best Director Oscars and won the Palme d’Or at Cannes — was pretty openly looking for a cash cow. The modern-day equivalent would be, like, Michael Haneke setting up a shingle to develop reality TV.

Dustin Hoffman, who had just won an Oscar for Rain Man, was the first star to put his hat in the ring to star as Mario; his kids were, as David Sheff puts it in his book Game Over: Press Start to Continue, “Nintendo maniacs,” and the Oscar winner apparently wanted to bring their 8-bit hero to life to impress them. Bill White, who handled Nintendo’s North American promotions, met with Hoffman and let him down easy — the game execs wanted Danny DeVito, who was, to quote Sheff, “as close to a dead ringer for Mario as Hollywood had to offer.” DeVito apparently entertained talks, but ultimately chose to concentrate on directing and co-starring in Hoffa. According to Sheff, Tom Hanks then agreed to step into Mario’s plumber’s boots for a cool $5 million, but the producers decided instead to go with Bob Hoskins who, after Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Mermaids, and Hook (and pre–Forrest Gump), was both more recognizable with the film’s sweet-spot demo, and cheaper.

Super Mario Bros.
had popularized a new level of video-game narrative, with its relentless forward motion via left-to-right scrolling, and the gameplay itself — with its goal of rescuing a princess from a castle by traveling through eight geographically and visually distinct worlds, collecting coins, killing foes, and generally doing anything necessary to stay strong and stay alive — was highly cinematic compared to most of its competition. And yet the fundamental problem of the movie seems to be that none of the many, many screenwriters assigned to the task could figure out how to translate the game into a filmable story.

Jim Jennewein and Tom S. Parker (The Flintstones) wrote the first known draft in 1991, a Princess Bride–esque revisionist fairy tale fantasy that seems to have lost traction when director Greg Beeman (License to Drive) was either fired or quit. He was replaced by Morton and Jankel, who had followed up the sly is-it-subversive-or-is-it-sellout sensation Max Headroom with a failed remake of the film noir D.O.A. It was this husband-and-wife directing team’s idea to set the Mario movie primarily in Dinohattan, an alternate-universe version of New York City. Though very, very loosely inspired by the Dinosaur Land of the game Super Mario World, Dinohattan would visually bear no resemblance to the mostly bright worlds of the Super Mario games; the Max Headroom team was going for a dark, hyperrealistic satire. Joffe cheerfully termed it “a wonderful parody of New York and heavy industry. We call it the New Brutalism.”

With directors in place, Joffe hired Rain Man co-writer Barry Morrow to give an adaptation a go. Morrow’s experience crafting Barry Levinson’s Oscar winner made him well suited for the game-movie gig, he told Variety in March 1992, given that he already had on his résumé “a quintessential brother story with a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.” After playing the game for “a day,” Morrow “decided to follow the structure of a myth.” In an ominous foreshadowing of things to come, he admitted that, in addition to the threadbare narrative of the games, he had been stymied somewhat by the fact that “most Super Mario journeys end in failure.”

Morrow also diplomatically acknowledged that his script had been reworked by multiple writers: “It’s been a long-distance race and the baton has been passed to other people.” In fact, at least five full drafts of scripts were produced between October 1991 and April 1992; at least nine writers are known to have worked on one or more versions. At one point, Joffe and producer Jake Eberts commissioned a draft, without consulting Jankel and Morton, designed to “Disneyfy” the darker, dystopian elements that the directors had pushed to incorporate. (For the hard-core curious, samples of the various scripts can be downloaded at Super Mario Bros. The Movie Archive.)

By the time journalist Richard Stayton visited the film’s North Carolina set (where Dinohattan had been built in a disused concrete factory) that summer to report what became an infamous L.A. Times “Calendar” cover story, the script was an ever-changing mass of revisions, with pages in every color of the rainbow. “The only page color missing is the original draft’s,” Stayton wrote. “No white pages remain.” In fact, Jankel and Morton, Stayton observed, seemed to be “improvising the story as they inch along.”

The cast was basically in revolt. The actors would shove each day’s new pages aside unread. Hoskins and Leguizamo swilled scotch together between takes, leading to an on-set accident in which Leguizamo drunkenly crashed a truck and Hoskins broke his hand. By the time Stayton got there, the disgruntled performers had abandoned any effort to put on a happy face. When Stayton told Hopper the directors declined to speak to him for the story, the actor responded, “That’s the only intelligent thing I’ve heard that they’ve really actually done.”

On August 16, 1992, the same day the L.A. Times unveiled Stayton’s set-visit story, the New York Times published its own. Michael Specter’s “Arts and Leisure” piece made no note of the chaos that Stayton observed, eschewing cracks from cranky cast members for sincere appreciation of what Specter posited as groundbreaking aesthetics: ” [It] is the striking vision of New York life … that will stamp the movie in many minds.” Specter went on to file Mario right alongside Blade Runner, which shared a production designer in David L. Snyder. The story put forward the idea this could be more than a cash cow — it could be an important aesthetic event. Specter was a receptive audience for this kind of spin: Early in his story, after describing Dinohattan, he suggested that if that place sounded familiar, “you are probably a 12-year-old boy, or one of the many Super Mario maniacs who sometimes act like 12-year-old boys” — seemingly unaware that Dinohattan as created for the movie would not be recognizable from any of the games.

Which version of the set did studio executives like Disney’s Jeffrey Katzenberg visit in June 1992, when Joffe and Eberts pitched Super Mario Bros. to invited suitors as an acquisition? (By the way, Disney owns Grantland, too.) Maybe it didn’t matter — the promise of cashing in on the Nintendo brand alone was allegedly enough to inspire a bidding war, which Disney won. This would have been right in the middle of the Disney Animation renaissance, which arguably began with Roger Rabbit, a film Katzenberg had strongly championed. In mid-1992, Disney was in the process of spinning Roger Rabbit off into Mickey’s Toontown, due to open at Disneyland in January 1993. No wonder, then, that “sources close to the completed deal” told Variety that the studio’s “interest centers around potential plans to create a theme park ride tied to the picture. It’s a strong fit, they say, since the Mario Bros. are to computer games what Mickey Mouse is to animation.” In other words, the acquisition wasn’t really about this specific movie, it was about the massive, multiarmed octopus of ancillary revenue — not unlike Disney’s recent acquisition of Lucasfilm.

That said, to get the octopus they still had to release the movie. When Disney made the deal, Super Mario Bros. was supposed to be ready to open that Christmas, but the release date was pushed back six months as the production became even more diseased. Morton and Jankel were shut out of both reshoots and the editing room. According to Spy Magazine, before it was all over, cinematographer Dean Semler had been appointed “de facto director.”

Despite everything above, the impression you get again and again from reading the coverage of this mess before the movie’s release is that no one thought any of this was going to matter. Everybody, it seems, had bought in deep to the narrative that Super Mario Bros. was going to lure a nation of kids, regardless of quality, on brand recognition alone. Almost every story I read included some version of Specter’s observation that “Mario has become as familiar as Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck” — a parallel that says more about the desire of uncomprehending grown-ups to domesticate this weird Japanese thing the kids were into than it does about Mario himself. Spy described the bad buzz as an “excellent test of [the] hypothesis that kids will watch anything.”

The tide turned with the reviews. Although the New York Times, the same publication that bought into the notion that Super Mario Bros. would be the next Blade Runner, offered a bemused thumbs-up from Janet Maslin, most reviews were negative, with some actively condescending to the kiddie audience and their supposed blind thirst for shit. The Hollywood Reporter conjectured that this “jumbled mess … will probably do super business simply because kids will love it no matter what. All they care about is that their beloved Mario Bros have come to life.” No one reviewing the film seemed to have any idea Mario and Luigi had been “brought to life” in a way that had little relationship to the experience of the game. David Denby went the other way, wagging his finger at “the movie’s nihilistic contempt for a child’s desire to be enchanted. There’s literally nothing for children to get involved in or enjoy in this smash-palace fiasco. At the theater I went to, the little children, holding their daddies’ hands … looked shell-shocked.”

As per usual, the kids of America proved the critics wrong: They were neither rabid nor traumatized, just indifferent. The film opened Memorial Day weekend on 2,000 screens in the U.S. — about as wide as releases got in those days. Its $8.5 million debut take was good enough for fourth place, behind Cliffhanger, Made in America, and (in its fourth weekend) Dave. Super Mario topped out at just less than $21 million domestically. Given the cost of the production and the confidence in the property, by no metric could this be seen as anything less than a failure.

The Field Test:

I had played Super Mario Bros. as a kid, a lot, but when you’re 8 years old, you’re not thinking a lot about what you’re seeing. Twenty-five years later, I tried to put myself in a screenwriter’s shoes: What would I extrapolate from this had I been paid to find a three-act structure amid the 8-bits? I decided that if one of Super Mario Bros.‘s screenwriters only played the game for “a day” before writing the movie, then I ought to play the game for at least two days before writing about the movie. I also wanted to get inside the game experience as it would have been in the early ’90s, to better understand what went wrong and what could have been. I didn’t go so far as to dig up a tube TV, but I did buy an old NES on eBay. Then, once fully immersed in the game, I went to an actual brick-and-mortar video store and rented the movie.

The Findings:

Embedded in the game is a classic immigrant story. Mario and Luigi are Italians in a strange land, blue-collar workers who travel back and forth between an above-ground mainstream and various undergrounds, moving through worlds (or class strata?) accumulating stuff, strength, and respect, all in a quest to get to a big house where they’ll liberate a beautiful woman — the final stage of the class-passing dream. Along the way, they hustle and fight and scrape to collect artificial performance enhancers (mushrooms, fire flowers) and currency (all of which can extend their lifelines), banging their heads against rocks to get ahead. They quickly learn the only thing more important than timing is artful cheating: With the prevalence of warp zones, shortcutting the system is part of the superstructure. As the landscape becomes more treacherous and competition more fierce, they find that they can no longer survive without the “boost” of mushrooms and invincibility stars. In the final stages, they race against the clock in abject desperation, roided-out addicts making stupid, careless mistakes in their frenzy to ascend just one more level. Maybe they find and save the princess in the end, but at what cost? It could be a lost Godfather sequel. It could be Scarface.

And that could be awesome, but it wouldn’t be an accurate adaptation, because the aesthetics of the game defy this, or probably any kind of literal, real-world relevant reading. Super Mario Bros. has the color palette of Candy Land and a score that’s slightly more upbeat than ABBA. Mario and Luigi themselves — probably due to the limitations of technology, but maybe also in keeping with deeply ingrained Japanese cultural attitudes — proceed through every adventure and ordeal with a blank smile on their faces. (This is never more frustrating than when you’ve reached an advanced level and you make some misstep that returns supersize, fireball-enabled Mario to his natural state as a functionally useless but imperturbably spunky runt; if this game sends a tangible message to kids, it’s that a cheerful disposition is worth fuck-all if you’re small.) The most realistic thing about the design is the game’s insistence that maybe three out of five times, evil is totally banal: In fact, most of the creatures who pose a mortal threat to our heroes are super cute (with the notable exception of the turtle who throws hammers and those armadillo bombs that fall out of a Sanrio-style cloud — screw those things). Still, it’s set in a world in which it’s totally normal when turtles throw hammers and armadillo bombs fall from a cloud.

Maybe it’s because of such idiosyncratic details that, for all of the advances that have been made in the world of gaming, it’s hard not to be nostalgic for this ultimate artifact of the 8-bit era. When I started telling people that I had (a) bought a working NES, and (b) done so in the service of writing about the Super Mario Bros. movie, I suddenly became super popular. Everyone wanted to play the game; everyone brave wanted to watch the movie, too.

I had never won the game — not as a kid, not in my recent “research” — and once I got a dozen of my peers in a room, some of them actual gamers, I got it in my head that it was important that someone in the room rescue the princess before we put on the movie. Within a few minutes, the attention of the whole group was raptly focused on the TV. There was a lot of backseat Mario driving — everybody was shouting out suggestions, secret tips to shortcuts or hidden blocks or pipe tunnels where you could get a mushroom — but it was friendly, collaborative. When one player would lose all his lives, he’d hand the controller (I only got one in the eBay package, alas) over to the person next to him. It was like watching a big sports game, but more exciting — it was truly communal.

We didn’t beat the game that night. We kept stalling out on the first or second stage of World 8, and eventually it started to get late and it was a Sunday and we’re kind of old, so we put the movie on. As engaged as we all were when the game was being played — engaged with what was happening onscreen, engaged with one another — by about 20 minutes into the film the group had collectively done a 180. People started fiddling with their phones. People who didn’t smoke went out back to have a smoke. But I had to sit there and watch the whole thing, because for whatever reason I had decided to ask for that job.

Super Mario Bros. is the kind of bad movie about which there’s not much to say, except that while watching it I felt bad for everyone in it, but also sort of smug, like all that money-grubbing slime got exactly what they deserved. Scraps of all the various, contradictory story lines are evident. The lurid “New Brutalism” of the production design and weird strains of sexual humor bump up against unironic displays of childlike wonder and references to The Wizard of Oz. Dennis Hopper seems to think he’s been asked to reprise his Frank Booth from Blue Velvet, but as a Superman villain. It’s a movie that was unabashedly made to appeal to preteens, that includes not a single character under the age of 20. As for the effects? I guess CGI Yoshi would have looked pretty good two weeks before Jurassic Park.

Two things happen in the last few minutes that are jaw-dropping now in ways they wouldn’t have been in 1993. Most notably, because of various plot mechanizations I will not spoil here (mostly because I barely understand them), the World Trade Center towers are shown dissolving from the top down. Finally, in a tag at the end of the film clearly meant to set up a sequel, Samantha Mathis’s Daisy, who had decided to stay and rule the alternate universe after the defeat of Hopper’s King Koopa (yeah, don’t ask), shows up at Mario and Luigi’s Brooklyn apartment, like Doc Brown at the end of Back to the Future, and insists that she needs the Mario brothers’ help.

The weirdest thing about this tag is not that Daisy, who was previously dressed as a slacker-era student paleontologist and was then costumed by Koopa in a Princess dress, is now sporting too-short shorts and a big gun à la Lara Croft. The weirdest thing about the tag is that it suggests that, incredibly, the film’s failure struck its makers by surprise.

There had been plenty of successful franchises by 1993, but it still took a certain type of confidence to implant certainty of a sequel into a first film. This was years before Comic-Con culture, and the parasitic marketing machine that feeds off of it, would come to define the summer schedule, ensuring that all the prime release-calendar real estate went to franchises; the week before Super Mario came out, the no. 1 movie had been Sliver. In the early ’90s, Hollywood was barely a decade into the blockbuster era, and the formula had not yet been perfected. Demographic-busting hits had come out of the alchemy of cutting-edge technology and derivative storytelling (Star Wars, Who Framed Roger Rabbit); so had phenomenal bombs (Howard the Duck). Setting Super Mario Bros. up for a sequel suggested a massive leap of faith — or willful denial.

Conclusions:

Before a Super Mario movie was a thing that existed, it was a super powerful idea that seduced dozens of powerful people who seemed to know nothing about the game on which it was based, other than that it was a thing kids were into — and that alone was apparently enough to justify the throwing of tens of millions of good dollars after bad.

In that sense, Super Mario was weirdly, dispiritingly prescient: What are films like Battleship or A Good Day to Die Hard if not blatant exploitations of a brand name that totally ignore that brand’s function and meaning, parasites designed to leech off of warm feelings about past amusements, produced with no understanding of what made people fans of those brands to begin with? As a movie whose essence, in terms of story and tone, changed radically from inception through production and into its finished form, with fidelity to the source apparently an afterthought, Super Mario Bros. would be an early bellwether of Hollywood’s current practice of stripping its brands down to character names, and maybe actors, in order to keep franchises churning indefinitely. This is different from thoughtfully reinventing a franchise to roll with changes in the culture, the way Justin Lin & Co. have done with the last few Fast and Furious movies. What is the essence of a Die Hard movie, the thing that makes it uniquely Die Hard? The people currently making Die Hard movies don’t care — they just bank on brand recognition to pad the box office. That was the Super Mario Bros. strategy, and the fact is, it has turned out to be well suited to the global nature of the contemporary business. A Good Day to Die Hard will be the franchise’s least successful film Stateside, while netting a respectable $300 million-ish worldwide. Super Mario Bros. was the product of an older generation callously pandering to the presumed low standards of the young; the modern global blockbuster is the product of Hollywood callously pandering to the presumed low standards of international markets. The impulse is the same; the difference is 20 years, and geography.

Ultimately, just as their plots conjure alternate possibilities in terms of the evolution of dinosaurs, Jurassic Park and Super Mario Bros. represent parallel tracks of the birth and evolution of the modern summer blockbuster. The former is the prototype of the industry using its power for good: an auteur-driven, smartly conceived demographic buster, a shining paragon of what can happen when Hollywood fires on all cylinders and absolutely everything comes out right. The latter is maybe even more reflective of its time, in that it’s an example of what Hollywood of the early ’90s thought was a sure thing — until absolutely everything went wrong. Born of the worst intentions, Super Mario Bros. was the toxic product of greed, hubris, incompetence, and total condescension to the audience; it was the black swan of early ’90s blockbuster engineering. Jurassic Park‘s impact on the summer blockbuster was felt right away and still persists to this day, but Super Mario Bros. created a much more insidious template, one that’s never been as prevalent as it is now: the simultaneous money-grub brand exploitation and fan-base slap in the face.

The former film editor of the
LA Weekly, Karina Longworth has contributed to The Guardian, NPR, Vulture and other publications. Her book Al Pacino: Anatomy of an Actor is due out in May 2013.

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