One of the interesting things about living in New York City during the coronavirus pandemic has been discovering ways to experience the area vicariously through different forms of media (because it’s dangerous to be out and about beyond necessary errands). While the 1993 Super Mario Bros. movie might not be the first thing that comes to mind in terms of depictions of New York City that are able to evoke its energy with a devastating accuracy, that’s exactly what it is.
The film — directed by Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel, and written by Parker Bennett, Terry Runté, and Ed Solomon — bears little resemblance to the video games it’s based on. Rather, it uses its premise about a pair of dimension-hopping plumber brothers to perfectly capture what it used to feel like wandering around New York City’s underground networks of subway stations as we all spent our days journeying through the city.
In place of the Mario franchise’s bright colours and cartoonishly cute characters, Super Mario Bros. instead opted for a more realistic, yet still beyond ridiculous, take on New York City across separate realities that were split by the same cataclysm that wiped out the world’s population of dinosaurs. While Mario Mario (Bob Hoskins) and his younger brother Luigi Mario (John Leguizamo) live in a world more or less like our own, their reality exists parallel to another in which dinosaurs continued to be the dominant species on the planet and evolved into intelligent, human-like creatures.
To get things rolling, Luigi falls head over heels in love with Daisy (Samantha Mathis), an up-and-coming archeologist studying at NYU who butts heads with crooked construction company owner Anthony “D.K.” Scapelli (Gianni Russo) over her search for dinosaur bones buried beneath the Brooklyn Bridge. The circumstances that bring the plumbers, Daisy, and Scapelli into one another’s orbits read just similar enough to a trippy playthrough of Donkey Kong to almost convince you into thinking that Super Mario Bros. isn’t going to go full-tilt video game movie.
Not long after all of its major players are established, the Mario brothers end up following Daisy as she’s whisked away through a portal that leads to Dinohattan, a bizarre nightmarish vision of a Manhattan dominated by the dinosaur-like people. Dennis Hopper’s performance as President Koopa — once a simple trope-infused egomaniac — lands very differently in 2020 because it’s difficult not to see shades of Donald Trump in his pursuit of dictatorial power of both Earths. The key to Koopa’s power lies in his ability to de-evolve his enemies into a number of abhorrent creatures, like the bumbling Goombas that trudge around the city carrying out his dirty work.
Others suffer fare more gruesome fates, like Dinohattan’s rightful king (Lance Henriksen), who’s transformed into a gargantuan mass of fungus that grows to envelop the city in miles of thick, slimy sludge that’s present throughout the bulk of the movie. While the king’s fungus works as a clever nod to the Mario games’ frequent use of toadstool imagery, the movie’s use of more organic, constantly sporing fungus has the weird effect of evoking the bits of strange goop one tends to encounter around real New York City when you spend any time commuting.
Thinking about Hoskins and Leguizamo being cast as the Mario brothers now boggles the mind, but the two of them are able to sell themselves as the plumbers in large part because of the obvious fact that they both understood the movie was only taking itself but so seriously — both in terms of its own plot and its willingness to deviate from Mario canon. Strange as it is to consider, Super Mario Bros. also breaks the norm by giving a significant amount of its spotlight to Princess Daisy, who turns out to be the key to merging the dimensions as Koopa wants. Whereas the vast majority of Mario stories have chiefly centered around Mario as he tries to save Princess Peach from one calamity or another, the story here gives Daisy and Luigi a chance to shine, and the chemistry between Leguizamo and Mathis absolutely sells them both as the lovestruck characters.
Super Mario Bros. had the potential to follow in a film like Escape From New York’s footsteps by letting Dinohattan come across as a full-on apocalyptic wasteland, but the movie instead treats the city more like a magical playground for its heroes to journey into on their way to save a long-lost princess. Super Mario Bros.’s plot is decidedly more convoluted than any of the canonical Mario projects that Nintendo’s had a more direct hand in creatively. But in being so outside of the box for its time, the movie’s aged and evolved into being more than just a brief pivot into surrealism for one of the world’s most beloved video game franchises.