"Super Mario Bros." ain't no game, but it ain't no movie, either. The huge, busy, empty, uninvolving mess is marooned halfway between narrative and spectacle, neither fully one nor the other.
In trying to transpose elements of the world's most popular Nintendo game into a story, the various fleets of screenwriters, producers and directors deployed just haven't been quite free enough to come up with something free-standing.
Devotees of the game may derive some pleasure from seeing its obstacles given quasi-flesh and set in motion, but that inert pleasure soon pales in a torrent of none-too-special effects, confusing story line and characters without personalities.
The film takes off from the proposition that some 65 million years ago, a meteor whacked into the earth and somehow blew the dinosaurs into that fabled refuge of hack screenwriters, another dimension. There, as mammalian life evolved on the surface of the planet, the dinos mutated into a parallel society, complete to a junky retro New York, called uncreatively enough Dinohattan (somebody got paid for coming up with that?); their most passionate yearning is to re-merge with this life.
Alas, an ambitious lizard named Koopa (played by Dennis Hopper underneath Brylcreemed rills of hair, his only reptilian characteristic) has taken over as a scaly Stalin, who hopes to unleash the merger violently and "de-evolve" all the humans up here. A question: If he succeeded, how could anyone tell?
Necessary for this plot, only because if it weren't there wouldn't be a movie, is a chunk of the meteorite worn as a necklace by a dinosaur princess who has been taken to the surface and doesn't know who she is, only that she has a strange affinity for the supposedly extinct species.
For reasons that again make little sense, emissaries from down there come up here, and kidnap her, but not before a young plumber named Luigi Mario has fallen in love with her; he and his brother Mario Mario go after her, find themselves in Dinohattan and must defuse the plot, depose the dictator and save the world.
And all that's in the first seven minutes.
The Mario brothers are played by husky Bob Hoskins and wispy John Leguizamo, but the movie doesn't explain them any more than it explains anything else. I take it they are supposed to represent working class practicality and know-how as, without a great deal of emotional investment, they grimly handle everything that comes their way.
The movie simply frees them to bounce up and down the corridors of Dinohattan running into various obstacles and enemies and zapping them without a lot of apparent effort. This, I take it, is where the movie most completely interfaces with the concept of the game. It's certainly hectic, but it isn't very involving.
Lacking real personalities, the brothers simply bop around the place like refugees from Donkey Kong. Why have actors play them? Why not, as in the game, little blips of electric energy? It wouldn't matter a bit.
Most disappointing is that as a movie dystopia, after the fashion of the Los Angeles of "Blade Runner" or the Mars of "Total Recall," Dinohattan seems somewhat tame and limited. More than anything, it put me in mind of Sidney Lumet's Oz-ified New York in the musical, "The Wiz," with Diana Ross and Michael Jackson -- it has the same soundstagey quality, the same overbright colors, the same sense of claustrophobia.
A few of the effects are cute. I liked a little Tyrannosaurus Rex that had more personality than all the human actors put together, and Hollywood Pictures may reap a little excess mileage out of the current explosion of dinosaurmania in advance of "Jurassic Park."
Then there's a mob of creatures called "Goombahs" that are amusingly conceived if inertly deployed: These are husky man-shaped beasts with tiny, tiny reptilian heads; they evoke something of the mix of pity and terror the flying monkeys did in "Wizard of Oz."
Such delights aren't nearly enough to sustain the interest of the average viewer, particularly as the plot becomes so dense with counter-intrigue (in my summary I left out the Italian gangster and the revanchist female assistant) and the events seem so arbitrary and meaningless that it's like watching color-coded rats in a maze.
The film was directed by the team of Rocky Morton and Anabel Jankel, who electrified the world for two or possibly three days with "Max Headroom" a few years back. In this one they're down to Minimum Headroom -- no room to think and nothing to think about.
"Super Mario Bros."
Starring Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo
Directed by Rocky Morton and Anabel Jankel
Released by Hollywood Pictures