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‘Super Mario Bros.’ Movie: How 1993’s Flop Made a Future Franchise Possible

There’s no love lost between the recently-released animated Super Mario Bros. and 1993’s live-action version. “I think it made me realize that movies, like, could be bad,” Seth Rogen, who voices Donkey Kong in 2023’s iteration, has said of the previous project, which he labeled “one of the worst films ever made.” John Leguizamo, who played Luigi in said film, has in turn spoken out against the new movie for its lack of inclusion. 

Some glitching is to be expected between these opposing interpretations. Thirty years separate the two Mario movies, which entered the Nintendo Universe under vastly different circumstances—and have been met with starkly opposite results. 

2023’s animated entry is an unmitigated box office success, making $206.4 million domestically in its first extended weekend and $377 million globally, per The Hollywood Reporter. In spite of initial backlash to Chris Pratt’s casting in the titular role (and perhaps because there’s currently a dearth of theatrical titles aimed at children), Super Mario Bros. is poised to best Warcraft‘s $439 million box office total, which would make it the highest-grossing film based on a video game. 

The 1993 original,by contrast, was a troubled production. The animated version was co-produced by Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto; the original was not. Starring Bob Hoskins as the eponymous Brooklyn plumber alongside Leguizamo as his brother, that movie grossed only $20.9 million—less than half of its $48 million budget. Today, the movie is not available on a single streaming platform.

But how did a poorly-conceived film spell game over for the franchise’s big-screen hopes—that is, until now?

Plans for a Super Mario Bros. movie began in 1990, when Oscar-nominated director Roland Joffé (The Killing FieldsThe Mission) and Chariots of Fire executive producer Jake Eberts flew to Japan for a meeting with then-Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi. They struck a deal: $2 million for rights to a film adaptation, as reported by The Guardian in 2018. “They looked at the movie as some sort of strange creature, [intrigued] to see if it could walk or not,” Joffé said.

A flurry of creatives were shuffled in and out of the project’s orbit, including directors Greg Beeman and Harold Ramis, stars Tom HanksMichael Keaton, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Danny DeVito, who was considered to both direct and star, according to the outlet. In the end, married directing duo Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel scored the job.

But their steampunk-inspired vision, set in the alternate universe of “Dinohatten” (where humans were borne from reptiles instead of apes) and facilitated by Oscar-winning Rain Man screenwriter Barry Morrow, got complicated when Disney stepped in as distributor. Looking for a sunnier spin, according to The GuardianEd Solomon (Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure) was hired to rewrite.

“Two weeks before the first day of principal photography, the script was rewritten completely,” Morton told Variety in a recent interview. “The producers forbade me to talk to the writer. But I called him up one night because I was building all these incredible sets and monsters and prosthetics. And I said, ‘You need to know what I’m building and what to keep in the script, because we spent all this money on this stuff already.’ When the producers found out I did this call, they went absolutely ballistic at me—they ripped into me. And it scared me.”

Solomon confirmed the production’s chaotic nature, telling The Guardian: “The production designers and special FX people didn’t know what they were building, the actors had arrived and they didn’t know what they were playing. There was just a general sense of ‘What the fuck is going on?’”

This disorder is on full display in a 1992 Los Angeles Times article written mid-filming. “The first script I got was witty. That was maybe 10 scripts ago,” Fiona Shaw, who played Koopa’s queen Lena, told the outlet, before singling out a particularly outlandish scene: “Now they’re talking about taking a bath with worms.”

The rest of the actors seemed to echo this sentiment, criticizing the directing team that production had scornfully nicknamed “Rockabell.” Dennis Hopper, who played King Koopa, said, “The directors won’t give interviews? That’s the smartest thing I’ve heard from them. That’s the only intelligent thing I’ve heard that they’ve really actually done.” 

Hoskins and Leguizamo reportedly downed whiskey between takes. In 2007, Hoskins—who died in 2014—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.”

Morton claimed to Variety that “most of the actors were sympathetic, but a few of them weren’t. It was uncalled for, but that’s the way it goes.” The day after that bombshell Los Angeles Times article, Morton and Jankel told Variety, they were fired by their agents. Their unceremonious dismissal came two and a half to three weeks before shooting’s conclusion, Samantha Mathis, who played princess Daisy, told The Guardian. “The directors were thanked and told: ‘You can leave now, we’re going to make the rest of the movie without you,’” she said in 2018. “At that point, it was abundantly clear things had gotten out of control.” Added Morton, “We were abandoned by Hollywood after Super Mario Bros.”

While Jankel told Variety that she has “massive regrets” about Super Mario, what was once only “a painful experience” has now edged into bittersweet territory. Years later,the film has earned impassioned defenders; at a recent midnight screening of the film at Quentin Tarantino’s New Beverly Cinema, the audience was “laughing and clapping at all the right places,” Morton told Variety. “They weren’t doing it ironically; it was genuine.” Jankel added, “It was vindicating. It took 30 years of a bad feeling to be wiped out in one evening.”

The once-maligned movie has also been reevaluated by some critics. Polygon deemed it “so much better than the animated” version; The Atlantic’s David Sims heralded it as “the kind of glorious missed opportunity that the industry just can’t allow to happen anymore, an instant cult curio that might be bad but is never bland.” . 

Whether fans celebrate or condemn the 1993 version, its crash made the new film’s success—and the franchise’s future—possible. “We were fearful of all the failure of past IP adaptations, where there’s a license and a distance between the original creators and the creators of the films,” Miyamoto told Variety. “The fans get outraged and mad because the studios didn’t do justice to the original work. We really didn’t want a backlash.”