East Meets West #20: Super Mario Bros (1986) .vs. Super Mario Bros (1993)

East Meets West #20: Super Mario Bros (1986) .vs. Super Mario Bros (1993)

It’s been more than a year since I last discussed the Super Mario Bros. anime, sub-titled The Quest To Rescue Princess Peach. It’s a colourful, yet unassuming anime movie which retains many of the features from its video game source material and visually reminds us of why it has become one of the most well-beloved franchises in history. It turns out that Hollywood would also attempt to run their own version of a Super Mario Bros. movie, having been given free-rein by Nintendo at such an attempt. Unlike the former, to say that this rendition was anything but faithful to the original is complete ignorance – a dark, foreboding overtone, unfitting (and very out-of-place) costumes, and no semblance of a typical Mario subplot are rampant. And although it’s become a cult classic for how utterly ridiculous it was, one would not be to blame if they were disappointed or disgusted at how it turned out.

Hence, that’s why it’s perfect for the twentieth East Meets West comparison post, as the whole idea is to take two movies – an anime from Japan, and another from a Western country with a similar premise – and, using my fallible opinion, determine which one is the best. Though at first glance the answer might seem obvious given the description, nothing is ever for certain until the final bell, and such is the case as well for these two movies, which were released seven years apart from each other (1986 in Japan, 1993 in USA) with more or less the same critical response from viewers and critics alike.

Eastern Competitor #20: Super Mario Bros. (1986)

You’ve played the game, now you can see… why is Luigi not wearing green?

Nintendo’s first crack at an anime for their flagship character is credited as being the first video game movie in history – alongside an equally obscure flick titled Running Boy: Star Soldier. What’s even more impressive is that despite the popularity of said franchise, this is also the first of only three (the 2023 film included) films based on that character’s exploits, and thus is buried amongst the collection of successful games and other merchandise. Directed by Masami Hata of Inuyasha, Hunter x Hunter and Hello Kitty fame, produced in conjunction with the studio Grouper Productions, it chronicles the perilous journey of Mushroom Kingdom storeowners Mario and Luigi across three worlds as they set off to rescue Princess Peach, who they encountered one night during a video game session, from the clutches of the evil tyrant Bowser. So basically it’s a heavily edited version of the NES equivalent.

The film was released on 20 July 1986 in theatres across Japan, where it would only remain due to a perceived lack of success. However, since then it has been released on YouTube, and was recently restored such that it would have a higher quality resolution for those who are curious about Mario’s early years to enjoy. You can thank Kineko Videos for this brilliant work.

Western Competitor #20: Super Mario Bros. (1993)

You’ve played the game, now you can see… why the heck do the Goombas look like they’re from a poorly-financed Broadway musical?

Making a movie based off a video game is hard work – it’s a task to condense all the levels and bosses into an at-most two-hour long movie while keeping audiences entertained and critics positively unfazed. That’s what the husband-and-wife directing duo, Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel, set out to do when they recruited acclaimed actors Bob Hoskins, John Leguizamo, Dennis Hopper and a young Samantha Mathis to star in their adaptation of the famed video game. Here, Mario and Luigi, two Brooklyn-based plumbers, are unwittingly dragged into an inter-dimensional conflict between their world and Dinosaur Land when Daisy, an amateur archaeologist and heir to the latter country’s throne, is kidnapped by Bowser’s bumbling minions, Iggy and Spike. From there comes a plot to rescue her and bring order to a destitute Dinosaur Land wracked with crime and desolation.

Needless to say, production of the movie was apparently a trainwreck, and after its 28 May 1993 release (a day before the Toronto Maple Leafs’ infamous Game 7 humiliation at the hands of Wayne Gretzky and the L.A. Kings) the movie flopped at the box office, and was universally panned by critics for its absurd environment, unstable choice of genre, floppy story and how unlike the original source material it was. Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo, who played Mario and Luigi respectively, hated being part of the film so much – the former called it the worst experience of his career – that they would purposely get drunk on set to get through it. It’s not all bad, though – it somehow got nominated for an Academy Award for its visual effects, and a web-comic sequel was released in 2013 just in time for the 20th anniversary of the film’s release.

The Showdown

Here begins the battle between the two Mario movies from polar opposites of the Earth. On one hand we have the bright, fantastical fairy-tale-like setting of the Japanese rendition, recognizable in its features by all who lived, breathed, and saw the cute designs of the characters. Then you have the American edition which, as charitably as I can put it – dark, edgy, grimoire-like, and a little bit more hardcore in its interpretation with a side dish of Dr. Fraudci’s LSD thrown into the mix. Who has the better characters? Who has the better setting? Who has the better overall interpretation? Burrow through the next few sections if you’d like to know.

Category #1: Mario And Luigi

It’s no doubt that Mario and Luigi are the stars of the show – after all it’s in the name of the movie! Both films chronicle the story from their perspectives, with a fresh take on their backstories, their occupations, the trials and their overall dynamic. In the 1993 edition, Mario and Luigi are a pair of brothers living in New York, presumably from an orphaned youth, who make a living as plumbers albeit struggling financially – in the beginning they are three months behind on their rent! They also are polar opposites of each other: Mario is a gruff, no-nonsense, and disciplined individual whose life is work, work and work – while Luigi is lazy, a joker, socially awkward and a kid-at-heart which wins him Daisy’s heart at the end of the film; an outcome which, to its credit, is new considering how Mario often gets the princess. Beyond these personality differences, I have to say that their dynamic is pretty fantastic. They’re always by each other’s side, the connection between them is constant, and they work together well at whatever stands in their way. They even got the correct jump-suit colours making them as recognizable as their counterparts.

Our glorious heroes, folks: two bumbling brothers running a shanty-town general store

Meanwhile, the Japanese version sees the characters in a more light-hearted manner. Sure, they’re less developed and are about as interesting as a brick wall, but considering how early the franchise was in its stages, did fair in giving characterization. Most notably, Luigi is presented here as far more willing to take risks, has his sights set on becoming rich, but as Mario takes charge in defeating Bowser and gaining all the glory and fame for himself, he is reduced to a mere second-fiddle wingman. The brothers, instead of being plumbers, run a general store in the middle of nowhere, and seem to be well-off, living in a house with Mario owning a video game console as a fourth-wall tie-in to his parent company Nintendo. As far as I’m concerned, this depiction of Mario and Luigi is creative, true to life, and fun to watch. But truth be told: Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo, despite the setbacks they experienced on-set, gave these characters a new life and a charismatic dynamic that transcends whatever horror backgrounded them.

SUPER MARIO BROS (1993) 1-0 SUPER MARIO BROS (1986)

Category #2: Bowser

Reject modernity, embrace monke

While the live-action moustachioed heroes were BSing their way to victory throughout Dinosaur Land, their arch-nemesis, Bowser, played by Dennis Hopper, ruled as the city’s insufferable mayor: stereotypically bad, merciless towards both his confreres and citizens, and relishes being in dark corners of his dimension’s equivalent of the former World Trade Center. Unlike his other monstrous disciples like the Goombas or Koopa Troopas, Bowser is a human-dinosaur hybrid, distincively wearing a suit-and-tie outfit, spikes sticking out of his blonde hair, accompanied by his mistress Lena. His goal is to obtain a piece of meteorite that struck Earth to wipe out the dinosaurs owned by Daisy, and use it to build a dimensional portal to invade Earth. Although Dennis Hopper tried his best to make the character as menacing and ruthless as possible, somehow this effect is ruined by all the jokes he gives off – from the pizza shtick in the middle of the movie, him saying “Bob-omb”, to his infamous “Monkey!” line after arriving in New York. Strange as he was, it’s nothing compared to the Bowser from the anime.

In Super Mario Bros‘ 1986 incarnation, Bowser looks just like his video game counterpart – and has the same fire-breathing, gigantically intimidating and scary look that evokes “final boss” vibes. It’s a lot more authentic and adds to the movie’s game-like feel, but in between all that visual appropriation, the directors forgot to gave him a personality. Yes, somehow he manages to be more bland and uninteresting as Dennis Hopper’s version, proof that sometimes visuals don’t make the actor. As the ruler of the Koopa Kingdom, he kidnaps Princess Peach with the sole goal of marrying her, the underlying reason of which is never clearly stated. In an attempt to win over Princess Peach’s love, he feigns concern and kindles romance amidst her prison, but is more than willing to degrade himself by transforming into disturbing caricatures of himself as a scarecrow and ballerina. Finally, in the movie’s ending, he and his Koopa army is shown to have gained a new job as employees at Mario’s store, cementing his buffoonic legacy.

Bowser challenging Mario to a fight to the death

As much as I want to like the animated Bowser, he affably lacks the charisma, smarts, discipline and visionary mentality fit for the ruler of a supposedly evil kingdom and his army. The only thing he’s got going for him is his inbred powers and sheer strength, but can’t even put up a proper fight against Mario when the time calls for it. The Hollywood version, on the other hand – as unrealistic and bizarre as he looks, he has something going for him personality-wise, and is somewhat interesting to watch. I would definitely have reason to believe he’s the villain with how brutally he treats Iggy and Spike when they fail, his mistreatment of his captives, and the final fight between him and Mario has more jazz to it – but that’s another category. In short, give the live-action Bowser’s personality over to the anime counterpart, and you might have a legitimate villain in him.

SUPER MARIO BROS (1993) 2-0 SUPER MARIO BROS (1986)

Category #3: The Princesses

Or, in the case of the 1993 version, the lack thereof one. Instead, we are introduced to Daisy, an amateur archaeologist whose dig-site is in danger of closure by mob boss Anthony Scapelli, and practically the lead heroine. The choice of this character, who previously appeared in the 1989 Game Boy game Super Mario Land is a rather interesting one, replacing the more well-known Princess Peach. On top of that, the character is given a more tomboyish look, straight out of an adventurer from the Indiana Jones series – only after she arrives at Bowser’s residence does the film remind us of her royal ancestry by putting her in a purple dress. Her role is a mix of damsel-in-distress and action girl: her possession of a meteorite which serves as the key to opening up a gateway between her original homeworld and Earth make her a target for Bowser’s disciples, while in some parts, most notably near the end, she plays a pivotal role in rescuing four kidnapped Brooklyn girls. My only question is that her backstory isn’t explained well – what did her father do that caused him to turn into fungus? Why was Bowser going after her mom, which led her to leave her at a Catholic orphanage in the beginning? And in the case of the cliffhanger ending, what is it exactly that she needs help with?

Princess Peach’s case is a lot more simpler, but it works. Her character and physical features are instantly recognizable to anyone, old and young, who know the franchise. Like Daisy, she gifts Mario with a necklace containing special powers that he must embark on a journey to return, and at the end stays behind in her homeworld to set right what went wrong. Her relationship with Bowser sees her play humorous tricks on him as an attempt to “win her love”, but that’s the only string of action she displays; for 99% of the film she’s basically the damsel-in-distress. She’s not as refined as Daisy, but one thing’s for certain, that her character is simple, makes sense in context, and needs no further adjustment for the sake of audience appeasement.

SUPER MARIO BROS (1986) 1-2 SUPER MARIO BROS (1993)

Category #4: Power-Ups

Now that’s what you call being faithful to the sources!

Power-ups are a vital part of any Mario game, and the anime makes sure to include this aspect. Mushrooms that can make one grow bigger, stars that give temporary invincibility and super-strength, and blocks that spit out money on contact make their appearances here and there. The movie has Mario collect three such power-ups before arriving at Bowser’s castle to initiate the final battle. The live-action version on the other hand, approaches this issue with a rather innovative, technological side to it rather than a mystical one. Super-jump boots, flamethrowers, de-evolution guns, and Bob-ombs (sponsored by Reebok) take their place, but needless to say, it doesn’t play out as exciting as it sounds. The Bob-ombs are so slow and take a long time to explode, it’s a wonder that they were able to win the day for Mario; and while mushrooms do make an appearance, it’s only as a background item that doesn’t do anything to benefit the gang. There’s just nothing distinctive about this film and any standard 1990s action film. You could say that it’s because of the live-action format and perhaps CGI limitations of the time. Well, that’s the problem; it shouldn’t have been live-action in the first place. Maybe some kind of live-action and animation hybrid would have been passable too, anything to make the game feel real on the big screen!

SUPER MARIO BROS (1986) 2-2 SUPER MARIO BROS (1993)

Category #5: The Big, Bad Arsenal

As another case in point, let’s look at the live-action film’s depiction of the game’s traditional enemies in the Goombas, Koopa Troopas, Big Bertha, and even in allies like the Toads, and everyone’s favourite dinosaur, Yoshi. From the image above, what can you see they have in common with each other? I mean… just look at them! They look like dog turds! They look nothing like their in-game counterparts, but some kind of Muppet rejects. They look way too realistic and are the stuff of nightmares, and it just makes no sense that they have to have humanoid qualities rather than the adorable creatures from nature (turtles, fish, mushrooms). Yoshi could get a pass considering they made him into a dinosaur, but he gets so little of a role, unlike in the games, that it’s pretty much a de facto cameo appearance. There’s nothing charming about these fiures, but instead I feel like I’m watching some kind of retarded mix between Super Mario, a cheap Die Hard parody, with a touch of Alien in the mix.

SUPER MARIO BROS (1986) 3-2 SUPER MARIO BROS (1993)

Category #6: Setting

If there’s anything about the Mario games and their layout, it’s how colourful and diverse the worlds the brothers travel through are in their landscapes. Scorching deserts, wintry plains, grassy fields, sky zones, vast oceans, dark caverns and haunted houses are included with exquisite level designs and a cheerful background to accompany you. All of these which the live-action film made sure to ABSOLUTELY BUTCHER WITHOUT REMORSE. Instead, make way for Dinosaur Land, which is nothing more than an alternate version of 1990s New York City where everyone, from the police force to even the old ladies are complete scumbags. In their travels across this world, Mario and Luigi find themselves scrambling across elevator shafts, dark skyscraper hallways, and briefly through desert plains. It’s monotonous, unpleasing to see, and reeks of steampunk which just does not work for a Mario film. Guess what? The hologram of this world confirms that these are the only regions that are explored in the movie, which is about as accurate of a depiction to the void of creativity that the writers had when making this.

Rather, if you’re looking for a diverse set of adventures in different landscapes, look no further than the anime. Granted, they rush through some of the travel sequences considering the film’s only an hour long, but in that span of time they managed to cover more ground and environments in the Mushroom Kingdom. Mario and Luigi start from their desert hometown, and fight their way through mushroom plains, green plains, swim through oceans, strike rich in dark caverns, and finally defeat Bowser within his hall of fire and lava – just like what we’re used to. Not to mention, on top of this multitude of landscapes, the art team put time and effort for Mario, Luigi, and us the viewers to explore and be impressed with how much detail was put into them, and how aesthetically pleasing they are drawn – unlike the gloomy, unfitting city of the former, straight out of Batman.

SUPER MARIO BROS (1986) 4-2 SUPER MARIO BROS (1993)

Category #7: Best Overall Story

If there’s one thing that I have to give credit – even if it’s a tiny bit – to the live-action Super Mario Bros. it’s that they tried to adapt the story to a different, darker tone. Those who were introduced to the franchise through its straightforward gameplay, happy graphics, and tranquil vibe will see their conception flipped upside down when they see how far Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo took the adventure. Part of it, you could say, is due to wanting a fresh cinematic start; others to production difficulties. But no matter what, Mario and Luigi’s daring adventure to rescue Daisy takes them through somewhat exciting hoops – an explosive police chase, a cat-and-mouse game with some Goomba soldiers, a bobsled race, and the fight against Bowser and his loyal mistress Lena, complete with thunder, fire and a decisive finish leave it leaps ahead of the anime. Every action scene feels like a boss fight from the game, and in that regard, it had the potential to impress. In the anime, things transpired like the video game, so I wasn’t expecting anything complex or extraordinary. It’s linear, doesn’t add flashy attacks and the action sequences is easy and straightforward.

That element one thing that the 1993 Super Mario Bros. was missing. Beneath all its edgy clothing, it lacked the video game’s fun-spiritedness. An equivalent would be like if I were to make a version of Die Hard where the protagonist is a child, the antagonist is a clown, and the weapons include basketballs, arcade machines, monkey-bar chases and a ball-pit. Oh, and nobody dies. You’ll tell me, “That doesn’t sound like Die Hard!” – and you’re right – because the latter is gutsy, macho, high-stakes, and merciless at times while what I described feels way too kooky, low-risk and sweet. Same thing with the live-action film: the source material is very soft-toned, but this film obscures it with too much adult drama, much to its demise. Although Mario, Luigi, Bowser and Daisy get a personality upgrade, when nothing looks and feels like what it’s intended to represent, it’s all for naught. Reportedly, Nintendo had little to do with it as well, and that’s explaining a lot. The anime, on the other hand, involved Nintendo heavily, so with that creative assistance, the final product, while not perfect, is just about right.

Mario, Luigi, their dog companion and a female Toad doing what Nintendo games have always done since the beginning: dress to impress.

Is there any hope for a reverse comeback? No. This week’s winner goes to the 1986 Super Mario Bros.

FINAL SCORE: SUPER MARIO BROS. (1986) 5-2 SUPER MARIO BROS. (1993)

Conclusion

The red and green jumpsuits of our brotherly duo were a sign that this movie could have worked. An additional improvement would be to put the setting in an animated Mushroom Kingdom setting akin to the first four worlds of Super Mario Bros. 2. The minions could have used animatronics to move them – I mean, Yoshi in the movie was one such, so why couldn’t they have done the same for the first group? As for Bowser himself: look at what Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles did. It came out three years prior and the costumes for the turtle quartet were on-point, so again – why couldn’t they have done this for Bowser? Given these changes, plus attacks that resemble the power-ups (e.g. touch a flower, get a flamethrower) instead of being outright weapons, and it might have been more accepted by the wider population. I guess the only thing we can do is to accept things as they are and repeat the mantra of St. Teresa of Avila: “Let nothing disturb you or frighten you. All things pass except God, He alone who is sufficient.”

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