I visited my childhood home. Drove around the Northeast Philly neighborhood where I have not lived in more than 20 years.
The strip malls were empty. The old video store long gone, the Toys R Us waiting for Spirit Halloween to take over come fall. Once in a while, as a reward for slogging through another week of school, we’d go shopping and I could browse for an action figure and a videotape. I don’t know how many times I made my parents sit through Super Mario Bros.
Staring at the empty storefronts I swear I saw the blue light of the old ticket stub sign flicker in the twilight.
A passing image, a sense memory… Like what I can remember now of that movie I saw so many times.
The first images of the 1993 Super Mario Bros. film, after an animated prologue, are awash with religious iconography. A desperate woman leaves a basket at the doorstep of a Catholic church. Her child entrusted to the safety of strangers, just as Moses was placed in a basket and carried down the river.
A group of sisters, habit and all, brings the package in from the rain. The interior of the church is aglow in the heavenly light of a stained glass window, featured prominently in long, still images as if to establish the importance of the window as a message itself. It is a portrait of King David holding his harp. Psalm 117 is visible: “Praise the lord, all ye nations,” it says.
The camera leaves the stained glass, the strange metalbasket opens. There is an egg. It hatches. There is a child.
It feels like these images should matter, that they should mean something.
This child grows up to be a woman named Daisy, an archaeologist. She is the lost princess of a dying kingdom. The one who could reunite a world ripped apart from our own. Or says the King of the Koopas, a demented Dennis Hopper in a performance of grand Trumpian bloviation. The haunting gasp of Koopa’s introduction of the “GOOMBA” has never ceased rattling in the dark corners of my mind.
An ever-present ghost of a mad emperor.
Is Daisy a Christ figure? Or is she a Moses, destined to lead her kingdom to a paradise she will never see herself?
It doesn’t matter. The movie just wants to use imagery that feels like it should matter, to give the viewer a sense that what they are seeing means anything.
Poor Toad, his peaceful protest to damn him forever to be a dimwitted Goomba in the service of Koopa’s tyranny. Blessed Toad, who never loses his purity of heart or love of music. Innocent Toad, who smiles as he presents Daisy her steamed vegetables, only to be set aflame.
Koopa calls his dying domain a “mushroom kingdom” as he taunts the disembodied fungus of the deposed king, now a sentient ecosystem that aids Mario and his brother Luigi, portrayed with shocking commitment and honesty by the pair of Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo.
What is the Mushroom Kingdom, with its electric cars, dwindling resources, gasping for freedom beneath the tyranny of the Koopa King? What does the authoritarian boot of its police and GOOMBAS! say to us in 20th or 21st century America?
Is it a condemnation of our perception of progress as ever-greater consumption? Does Koopa represent the endless capitalist desire for domination of the planet’s limited resources? Perhaps, with his obsession with devolving his enemies to lower life forms, Koopa is a criticism of the capitalist appropriation of Darwinism and the idea that the powerful and wealthy are more advanced. The heroes are, after all, pro-union working class plumbers, driven out of work by corrupt government officials.
Maybe Super Mario Bros., in its surface references towards a mindless piece of children’s entertainment, is a hidden class criticism, a radically anti-corporate screed cloaked in the veil of a mindless money grab.
Or maybe it is just the manic dream of two music video directors given too much freedom and too much money. Where the only thing that matters is the image itself.
Occasionally there are moments I wonder, could this film, its hard-scrabble heroes and lizardian Lady Macbeth duplicitously scheming behind the back of her king, mean something more were it not Super Mario in name?
No, I think. The presence of Mario, his first name also his last, and Luigi, his last name his brother’s name, are critical. They grant the incongruous imagery some level of unity as it takes the viewer into a dystopian alternate world where freedom is nothing but a fungus that chokes the city to remind itself of what it has lost.
And yet…It is a dark and beautiful movie whose world is disturbing and familiar in ways that feel like it should mean something. Hoskins’ portrayal of Mario is multifaceted– gruff and cynical, but masking the heart of a loving father and brother. He teaches and empowers Luigi to follow his dreams. By the movie’s end Luigi, portrayed with “aw-shucks” eagerness by a young Leguizamo, has taught Mario to view the world with more wonder, and Mario, in his final line, declares, “Oh, I believe!”
I am home before I know it, 32 now, expecting my first child with my wife who waits for me inside. These childhood memories cling to me still as I step out of the car, like the dust on an old VHS tape.
Maybe this movie meant something to its creators, maybe it means something to its audience, but as these hazy recollections crash over me, all that really matters is that it gave me my Bob Hoskins Mario action figure, and though it may be good or bad, who can tell?, it meant something to me then, even if I will never know what that meaning was.
Maybe, as long as I have these grainy VHS memories, it doesn’t need to mean anything at all.