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Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo as Mario and Luigi, wearing jumpsuits and posing in front of a giant metal ‘M’ in a promotional image for Super Mario Bros. (1993) Image: Hollywood Pictures

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1993’s Super Mario Bros. is so much better than the new animated movie

The live-action Mario movie was weird, gross, and risky — and a lot more fun than the safe, faithful 2023 version

Maddy Myers has run Polygon’s games section since 2020 as deputy editor. She has worked in games journalism since 2007, at Kotaku, The Mary Sue, and the Boston Phoenix.

The Super Mario Bros. Movie is a pitch straight down the middle of the plate. It’s uncomplicated, breezy, and risk-free. It’s the exact kind of Mario origin story that you’d expect to see after the disastrous critical reception to the 1993 live-action movie Super Mario Bros. — and for all of those reasons, it’s pretty boring.

It has nothing on the grandiosity of 1993’s Super Mario Bros., a movie that infuriated its stars and cinema audiences with its bizarre creative decisions. Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo, who played Mario and Luigi respectively in the film, drank whiskey between takes to cope with the production’s chaotic set, which may have led to Hoskins’ repeated injuries while filming. In 2007, Hoskins told The Guardian that Super Mario Bros. was “the worst thing I ever did… It was a fuckin’ nightmare. The whole experience was a nightmare. It had a husband-and-wife team directing, whose arrogance had been mistaken for talent. After so many weeks their own agent told them to get off the set! Fuckin’ nightmare. Fuckin’ idiots.”

It’s obviously for the best that the Super Mario Bros. set environment wasn’t replicated in the making of the 2023 animated film. (At least as far as we know.) But the overcorrection in the other direction led to a film that lacks any sense of spontaneity, creativity, or narrative risk. The Super Mario Bros. Movie is so by-the-books that you could easily predict the entire plot just from the trailers alone. If anything, the plot you’d predict would probably have more twists and turns than the actual movie.

But Maddy, you might be thinking, isn’t The Super Mario Bros. Movie for kids? It doesn’t need to be complicated. Sure, I take your point. One of the big criticisms of the 1993 Mario movie is that it isn’t very kid-friendly, unless you’re a kid who likes gross, dark sci-fi. In Super Mario Bros., the Mushroom Kingdom gets reimagined as Dinohattan, a cyberpunk dystopia in an alternate universe populated by dinosaur-human hybrids ruled by the cruel tyrant King Koopa (Dennis Hopper). In addition to kidnapping human women from our universe’s version of Manhattan, in search of the long-lost Princess Daisy, King Koopa also has a terrifying “de-evolution” device that can transform any living being into some primordial version of themselves.

Because it’s live-action and relies heavily on practical effects, the sets of Super Mario Bros. look as disgusting and unfriendly as Total Recall’s depiction of colonized Mars. They’re rendered as slick with slime and rust, all to illustrate the societal harm that King Koopa’s reign has wrought.

Super Mario Bros. is much darker in tone and appearance than The Super Mario Bros. Movie of 2023 — but it’s also a fascinating take on the games’ silly premise. The games never explain why Mario, an Italian American human from New York City, ends up in a world populated by anthropomorphic fungi. But if that really happened to him, wouldn’t it be scary and bizarre rather than breezy and fun? When Hoskins and Leguizamo’s Mario and Luigi end up in this dinosaur-populated, fungus-filled alt-universe, it truly feels as though the two Brooklyn plumbers are up against a serious challenge. But as hardscrabble independent business owners, they’ve cleaned up a lot of literal shit and dealt with some very tough customers, so it makes a strange sort of sense that their reaction is to roll up their sleeves and dig into Dinohattan’s problems.

Mario, holding a wrench, and Luigi, holding a plunger, stand back to back in front of the Super Mario Bros. plumbing truck near a Brooklyn intersection in artwork from the Super Mario Bros. Movie. Image: Nintendo, Illumination/Universal Pictures

The Super Mario Bros. Movie actually has the same premise as the live-action film, but with all the unusual and gritty edges sanded off. Mario and Luigi are still Brooklyn-based plumbers who fall into a portal to another world. But instead of the goofy magical explanations and world-building of the 1993 movie, The Super Mario Bros. Movie sets aside all those questions and tosses Mario into a series of platforming puzzles. Question blocks arbitrarily exist all over the place, and deliver power-ups for no clear reason. Princess Peach is a human woman who leads the Toadstool population; she seems blandly unconcerned with her own mysterious origin story. Bowser wants to kidnap Peach and marry her, because she’s beautiful and cool; no further characterization or plot points required.

And the big lesson at the end of the movie? Something broad and general about the value of determination, or so the characters keep repeating, up until Mario and Luigi grab the perfect power-up to defeat Bowser. So, this isn’t really a lesson. It’s more akin to just watching somebody play a Mario game.

The fact that the live-action Super Mario Bros. attempted to come up with explanations for the bizarre world of Mario makes it so much more hilarious and special to watch, even now. The grimy world of the 1993 movie is bursting with character, and its many Easter eggs and references feel earned as a result, not least because several of them are subtle and easily missed. At one point, Mario and Luigi go to a nightclub called the Boom Boom Bar, named after the Super Mario Bros. 3 boss. Neon signs adorn Dinohattan’s streets, with references to various other enemies, like Boo Diddly and Bullet Bill. Characters like Big Bertha, Iggy, and Spike appear in the film as well, adapted into live-action humanoid versions, each with a job or motivation that offers up a twist on their original inspirations.

In Illumination’s animated movie, the references are just one-to-one recreations of the stuff from the games, with no iteration or reimagining involved. There’s no attempt to explain or characterize these elements beyond their established and accepted existence. That’s not to say the film would be somehow better if a character explained why eating mushrooms causes Mario to grow or shrink. But when compared to the bizarre fungal overgrowth in Dinohattan that provides mysterious power-ups to Mario and Luigi, The Super Mario Bros. Movie feels pretty phoned-in.

A still from the 1993 Super Mario Brothers movie starring Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo Image: Hollywood Pictures

It makes business sense that The Super Mario Bros. Movie has so little to add to its source material. After all, it isn’t scary or alienating, which means it will probably make a trillion dollars. It’s still a missed opportunity. Like the live-action versions of Disney movies, or the moments when the HBO version of The Last of Us recreated the game’s cutscenes shot-for-shot, The Super Mario Bros. Movie feels like a sad new entry in a very boring trend.

The Last of Us adaptation soared when it embraced new possibilities, such as its rewriting of Bill and Frank’s relationship. Seeing an adaptation that’s almost completely identical to what came before — or, worse, even more boring and flat than what came before — raises the question of why any studio would bother to adapt anything at all. Without something new to say, some new aesthetic or vision to add to the table, there’s no point… other than grabbing easy cash without undergoing the burden of actually reimagining a popular franchise for a new setting.

If you don’t care to see a weirder and more creative vision of Mario — as Super Mario Bros. attempted in 1993—– then just buy a copy of Super Mario Odyssey and play that instead. It’ll provide the same amount of entertainment as The Super Mario Bros. Movie, and then some, because Mario can wear a wedding dress in that game. It’s cute, and it’s more subversive than anything that happens in either Mario movie adaptation.