There are some who would have you believe that Super Mario Bros, the 1993 live-action film based on the hit Nintendo franchise, is a bad movie.
The late, great, Bob Hoskins, who actually starred as Mario, was one of them.
“It was a fuckin’ nightmare,” Hoskins told The Guardian in 2007. “The whole experience was a nightmare. It had a husband-and-wife team directing, whose arrogance had been mistaken for talent…! Fuckin’ nightmare. Fuckin’ idiots.”
Time is a great healer though and while Hoskins continued to rank the movie as his worst long after he retired, the bold ambition and inventiveness of Super Mario Bros. has seen it undergo something of a critical reappraisal over the past decade.
The Original Super Mario Bros. Movie
Directors Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel were best known for their work on the visually arresting cult TV series Max Headroom when they landed the gig of translating the story of the world’s most famous plumber to the big screen.
Their vision was about as far removed from the world of the Super Mario video game franchise as you could get; set in a parallel universe where the dinosaurs lived on alongside humans and other reptilian hybrids as part of a cyberpunk dystopian city dubbed Dinohattan.
The plot saw Mario (Hoskins), and brother Luigi (John Leguizamo) head there, Alice In Wonderland-style, to rescue Princess Daisy (Samantha Mathis) after she’s kidnapped by Iggy and Spike (Fisher Stevens and Sonic Youth’s Richard Edson respectively), the henchman of Dinohattan’s president, King Koopa (Dennis Hopper).
That might have sounded straightforward enough on paper but in practice it was anything but with studio interference, constant script rewrites, on-set issues, and the firing of Morton and Jankel part of the way through production all contributing to the film being something of a mess.
Critics and audiences agreed, with Super Mario Bros. garnering bad reviews and a poor box office return that spelled “game over” for the franchise and the prospects of any further Nintendo live-action movies – the next would come 26 years later with Detective Pikachu.
Yet, nearly three decades on, the movie has emerged as a bonafide cult classic, noted for its innovative computer-generated effects, eye-popping animatronics, biting satire, and markedly unique take on the source material.
The Genesis of the Extended Cut
For many fans, arguably the most fascinating debate around the film is what could have been had Morton and Jankel been left to their own devices.
In the era of the “Snyder Cut” of Justice League and recent cries for an “Ayer Cut” of 2016’s Suicide Squad, it’s a question that has been given fresh impetus by the arrival of “The Morton Jankel Cut” a new extended version of the original Super Mario Bros. film that sees the runtime jump from 104 minutes to 125.
What makes this new cut more unique, however, is that it is the work of die-hard fans over at the Super Mario Bros. Movie Archive, a stunningly impressive website that explores the troubled production process and finished film in brilliant detail.
“The whole mission of the site has always been to inform people,” founder Ryan Hoss explains to Den of Geek. “To have the information ready for when they are ready to reappraise the film. I watched the film and I was left with this overriding question of why? Why did this happen and what does it mean? The website is that place for people to go and find those answers and be more informed and better able to get something out of this iteration of Super Mario Bros.”
From there, the new cut of the movie was a natural offshoot.
“We’ve always known how special this movie is and the more we have dived into it the more we see these things,” Hoss says. “This cut is just another avenue to see what they were trying to do. It provides context. It’s not set dressing, it’s part of a story.”
The Directors’ Original Vision
Steven Applebaum, the Super Mario Bros. Archive‘s editor-in-chief, recalls watching the Super Mario Bros. movie as a child and, like many, feeling a little confused by it all.
It was only later, when revisiting it as an adult, that he began to see how Morton and Jankel were attempting to ape the success of another visionary director tasked with adapting one medium into another. Like many, Applebaum, the website’s editor-in-chief, didn’t fully understand why Morton and Jankel approached Super Mario in the way they did at first.
“They were approaching it from a subversive deconstructive angle. They didn’t want it to be a typical damsel in distress story,” Applebaum says. “The directors and producers saw video games as the next big thing after comic books. They saw what Tim Burton did with Batman and how he took that character and made him into a modern myth. They thought they could do the same with games.”
The results may not have equated to what Burton achieved with Batman but Hoss has an admiration for what they were trying to do.
“It’s this idea that they were making a movie that shows what really happened,” he explains. “That if you handed this movie to Nintendo, Super Mario Bros the game would be what they distilled out of the film. It’s a really weird trip but that was what made sense to them.”
For Hoss much of that is down to its status as not only as the first video game movie adaptation but as a relic from another time in Hollywood moviemaking.
“This wouldn’t happen today,” Hoss says. “There would be so much studio oversight. For them to take that concept and make it a film and the fact that did happen, even though the film went through a ton of iterations and trials and tribulations, that’s what keeps it relevant. It’s the fact that all these risks were taken and done in earnestness rather than as part of some cash grab.”
Producer Roland Joffe made his name off the back of critically acclaimed dramas like The Killing Fields and The Mission. While the Super Mario Bros. movie may not be regarded in the same way, he remained proud of its legacy in the years that followed. Back in 2012, Joffe told Wired: “It’s not that I defend the movie, it’s just that, in its own extraordinary way, it was an interesting and rich artefact and has earned its place. It has a strange cult status.”
Joffe could not have realised how true his words would ring, particularly in the way Morton and Jankel reshaped the Hopper’s character of King Koopa as essentially Donald Trump in everything but name.
Applebaum goes further, citing Donald Trump’s 2015 election victory as a significant moment in the reappraisal of the Super Mario Bros. movie. As time has gone on and Trump’s star has ascended, Applebaum believes the film has evolved to become something “eerily predictive.”
Yet, in his view, Joffe’s assertion that the film is a “rich artefact” is even deeper.
“The directors and writers were commenting on the situation at the time,” he explains. “The whole situation with Koopa’s fascist state was inspired by the Rodney King police situation in LA and how President Clinton was clamping down. The fact it was commenting on political events at the time and how the American political situation has become a parody of itself kind of shows that the directors understood what they were satirizing.”
Release the Morton-Jankel Cut!
The story of the “Morton-Jankel Cut” began in May 2019, when the team behind the Super Mario Bros. Archive discovered a previously unseen extended rough cut of the movie.
“This workprint was bought via eBay auction. We believe that it came out of producer Roland Joffe’s storage locker,” Applebaum says. “At some point his storage locker and entire holdings of Lightmotive who made the film was liquidated. We assume this [cut] would have most likely died with it.”
For Hoss, the workprint provided a form of validation.
“For years we sifted through interviews, photographs, trading cards and things we found in magazines and shooting scripts to make a giant list of all the deleted scenes,” he says. “It was nice to be validated when we found this cut that a good chunk of these things did exist and were in the movie.”
The next step was to recruit filmmaker Garret Gilchrist to restore the footage. Gilchrist had previous when it came to resurrecting movies, having worked on a revised version of the cult 1993 animated film The Thief and The Cobbler as well as a string of Muppets projects.
The resulting cut includes an additional 20 minutes of footage, weaving in a subplot that sees Mario Brothers clashing with rival Mafia-linked plumber siblings, the Scapelli Brothers. It also solves some of the mysteries left behind by the heavily edited theatrical cut.
In one scene, for instance, a pile of slime is visible on the floor yet never explained. This cut provides the answer in the form of a sequence in which one of King Koopa’s henchmen is reduced to the aforementioned pile of goo.
A Super Mario Bros. Movie Sequel?
The other notable addition is a rap performed by Iggy and Spike that served as a backbone of a discarded subplot that could well have paved the way for a sequel.
“In the theatrical cut, there is a brief moment when Lena (Fiona Shaw) says ‘Iggy and Spike were preaching against you in the boom boom bar’ and for years we were like, ‘what are they talking about?’” Applebaum explains. “We long suspected there was a rap there and even interviewed Richard Edson who played Spike. He confirmed he and Fisher Stevens wrote the rap. So we knew there was some kind of footage of it.”
They finally located the footage in an unlikely place.
“We found a clip where Entertainment Tonight showed set footage of that scene being filmed,” Hoss says. “We could hear it in the background doing this rap and we were like ‘Oh my God, the rap is real’ It wasn’t just real it was actually filmed.”
Very much of-its-time, the newly-restored rap represented the culmination of the forgotten plotpoint in which Mario and Luigi had Koopa’s two henchmen questioning whether they were truly living in a democracy under their lizard overlord boss. While the characters disappear from the theatrical cut, this version sees them ruminating on the demise of Koopa at the end of the film and plotting to overthrow the monarchy under Princess Daisy in a clear hook for a potential sequel.
“A More Adult Cut”
Additionally, several scenes throughout the film are re-edited and extended as part of a version of the movie aimed at older audiences.
“It’s a more adult cut with a parental bonus,” Applebaum says.“Little jokes and references that an older audience would appreciate. What a lot of people don’t realize is that the directors were not making a film aimed at children. They wanted to make something aimed at young adults and people in college who played the game but had outgrown it and wanted to revisit it in a new light.”
This version of Super Mario Bros. is far from the definitive one though, as the directors never got to finish their edit of the film.
“It’s hard to know for sure how much of their vision this is,” Hoss says. “I think in the state that it is in, unless we found the real film elements, this is like putting a Band-Aid on a Band-Aid. This cut is about getting as much of this work print into the film without messing up the flow of the final movie. It was about creating a proof of concept. [The directors] could probably do more like a ‘Snyder Cut’ kind of thing where it is as different as it could be because the thing that came out was compromised…It’s a miracle that it was able to be in the state that it is in and that some of their vision did get across.”
While the likes of Hoskins and his late co-star Hopper were highly critical of the film’s directors, Hoss has more sympathy, pointing to Disney’s purchase of the film’s distribution rights as being key to the project going off the rails.
To his way of thinking, it ended up being a case of too many cooks in the kitchen, citing the studio’s decision to bring Bill and Ted writer Ed Solomon onboard for a series of last minute rewrites as a prime example of the interference that derailed their vision for the film.
“The directors were handed the reins and given the control to make the movie they wanted to make, until Disney came in,” Hoss says. “They suddenly had to change things and make the movie more family friendly and that was when everything started that created the film we got.”
On top of that, it may have simply been a case of bad timing – Jurassic Park debuted just a few weeks later, crushing everything in its path.
Ultimately, their hope is that this new cut of Super Mario Bros. will spark renewed interest in a re-release of the movie. But while new versions have been forthcoming overseas, Hoss doesn’t hold out much hope for a US release or any kind of definitive edition, since the rights to the film are scattered across multiple companies.
“The rights are all strange,” Hoss says. “Disney controls the rights in the US but it’s a whole bunch of other companies worldwide. There was a blu-ray that came out in Japan but that was region 2….If somebody was able to get to Disney and convince them to release it, it might work. With enough interest and keeping it in the conversation, it’s possible another 4K release of the existing theatrical version is possible and maybe a version of this workprint could be included.”
4K release or not, Hoss is proud of what has been achieved with this new version of the film.
“This is a perfect example of your childhood coming back with more for you to get out of it,” he says. “Some things just stand the test of time better than others. The fact that this cut is out there just adds another layer to the story of the Super Mario Bros. movie and just helps further the analysis of it.”
For more information on the Morton Jankel cut head to the Super Mario Bros. The Movie Archive