The planned big budget animated version of the video game “Angry Birds” reported this week by Hollywood Reporter puts me in mind of an all but forgotten debacle of 20 years ago this month, “Super Mario Bros.”
Disney’s live-action version of the then wildly popular Nintendo title, directed by the married team Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel, early MTV auteurs and the creators of “Max Headroom,” “Super Mario Bros.” was the first Hollywood movie based on a video game. Still, it’s thanks to former colleague Scott Foundas who forwarded me a terrific bit of Hollywood archeology posted by another former colleague Karina Longworth, last month on Grantland, that I even remember “Super Mario Bros.”—the Movie, at all.
Disney evidently made the equation between the Mario Brothers and the mouse on which their empire was built. Unfortunately for the studio, no one else did. Longworth, who is of age to have played Super Mario as a child and was thus the movie’s target demographic, drily recounts the production’s catastrophic back story which (shades of “Myra Breckinridge”) involved multiple writers, constant changes in direction, drunken on-set escapades and some very unhappy actors, including Dennis Hopper, Bob Hoskins, and John Leguizamo. Morton and Jankel never directed another feature and who’s to say that the debacle didn’t contribute to their marital break-up as well. The reviews were scathing although the two I’ve read, Janet Maslin’s in the New York Times and Michael Wilmington’s in the Los Angeles Times both have kind words for the special effects and production design (by “Blade Runner”’s art director David L. Snyder.)
“Super Mario Bros.” doesn’t seem to have developed any traction as a cult film—as part of her research Longworth includes a comic description of a dispirited group screening. Still, as excavated in her essay, “Super Mario Bros.” emerges as a key event missing from the early ‘90s build up to the fin de siècle digital turn (and my essay on it in “Film After Film”) that includes James Cameron’s 1992 “Terminator 2” (which featured the first human-based computer character), Robert Zemeckis’s 1992 “Death Becomes Her” (with star actresses digitally cosmeticized) and 1994 “Forrest Gump” (star digitally inserted into archival footage), and, most significantly Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park,” the blockbuster triumph of summer 1993 which opened two weeks later.
Citing its unprecedented international “marketing and merchandising blitzkrieg,” David Bordwell recently credited “Jurassic Park” with “furnishing the template for marketing every big-budget summer movie that followed.” Longworth argues that “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.” (Maslin and Wilmington had similar realizations at the time.) What’s striking to me, however, is the movie’s elaborate and seemingly gratuitous dinosaur subplot. While the Mario Brothers are from Brooklyn, the action is mainly set in Dinohattan, the frenzied province of oversized lizards, led by Hopper, who have, mutatis mutandis, mutated into quasi-humanoid form.
It’s possible that “Super Mario Bros.” was inspired by another early ‘90s kiddie sensation, Barney the purple, friendly T-Rex, although his show only went on line 13 months before “Super Mario Bros.” opened. The advance word on “Jurassic Park” might well have been a factor too although I prefer to believe that, no less than Spielberg, if perhaps more dimly, the makers of “Super Mario Bros.” understood that their movie too was a marker in the evolution of digital cinema and the de-evolution of photographic motion pictures.