When skeptics make the case that making a film adaptation of a video game is never a good idea, the Super Mario Bros. movie tends to be Exhibit A. Starring Bob Hoskins as Mario and John Leguizamo as Luigi, the 1993 box-office flop is certainly bizarre, complete with sentient ooze, a baby raptor standing in for Yoshi, and frightening “Goombas” with giant bodies and tiny scaly heads. But it’s also, in this critic’s opinion, one that merits revisiting, not just because it’s not as awful as it’s remembered to be, but because there’s a new restoration of the film.
The “Morton-Jankel Cut,” as it’s called, is the passion project of the Super Mario Bros: The Movie Archive team—Ryan Parente, Steven Applebaum, and Ryan Hoss—who reached out to filmmaker Garrett Gilchrist to restore the film after discovering a VHS containing 20 minutes of previously unseen footage. The extended cut of the movie, which you can watch for free on the Internet Archive, is even wilder than the theatrical version, including a scene where President Koopa (Dennis Hopper) “de-evolves” a man into slime, the implication that he suffers from dementia, and a musical interlude where Iggy and Spike (Fisher Stevens and Richard Edson) break into a regicidal rap at the Boom Boom Bar. (Sample lyric: “King Koopa, you poopa.”) To learn more about how the restoration came together, we spoke to Gilchrist about the biggest challenges he faced, what it was like to sink countless of into a movie frequently named as one of the worst video-game adaptations of all time, and why he considers this new version superior to the theatrical cut. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Karen Han: How did you come to be involved with restoring Super Mario Bros.: The Movie?
Garrett Gilchrist: I actually hadn’t even seen the movie, but the project seemed really interesting. I always respond to people who have such an interest in one movie or one franchise or one project that they dedicate their lives to it. I understand that, because that’s what I do with a lot of things. When Steven Applebaum and Ryan Hoss reached out to me, I had been following their project for many years, and I really respect their dedication to preserving rare material related to this film.
I think Super Mario Bros. is a movie that people think they’ve seen without having seen it, and that’s actually kind of a problem because it’s got such a bad reputation—partly I think justified and partly not, because I think it’s better than its reputation in a lot of ways. The enthusiasm about this release is great. It’s half people who are laughing at it, and half people who are like, “Oh no, I actually love this film. I loved it as a kid and I like how bonkers it is.”
The filmmakers, Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel, they really thought they were making a different movie than they ended up making. I think the movie was always going to be controversial, because it definitely wasn’t the Mario movie that people wanted at the time. I haven’t read the script, but Steven always says that the scripts tried a lot of different things. There was a fantasy version and then there was this cyberpunk version, which was more adult, that Rocky and Annabel wanted to do. And that’s not what happened, because Disney came on the film, but they’d already built all the sets and done all the costumes for a more adult take on it. It is a film that is very much in search of a tone, where Disney and a lot of the people who were working on it wanted a movie for 8-year-olds. I think the directors felt that they couldn’t deliver that because of what they’d planned. So basically everyone spent the entire shoot very pissed off, and the movie didn’t know what it wanted to be. When I finally watched it, I was like, they didn’t quite get what they wanted, but there’s a lot to like about it anyway.
In this cut, I was going for a more laid-back tone because the editing in the final film is very frantic—it doesn’t breathe and it doesn’t make sense a lot of times. I wanted to dismantle that a little bit and slow it down to what it was originally and make more sense out of it.
One of the big things that’s been restored is the Iggy and Spike rap. What do you make of that scene?
Iggy and Spike rapping was one of the big ones. There’s a scene in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze where Vanilla Ice comes out, and he’s like, “Go ninja, go ninja, go,” and the ninja turtles all dance. That was 1991. I think that’s what you do in a kid’s film at that point. The Iggy and Spike rap was something they came up with on set. Fisher Stevens and Richard Edson came up with this rap, which I think, in this VHS, it’s not finished. They used a different backing track. I think they actually produced this and finished it, and we don’t have that final version. I think it’s a very stupid scene. I really respect that.
I don’t think they cut the scene for being stupid, because there’s plenty in this movie that’s stupid. I think they cut it because of these dancers, these stripper dancer girls. They’re not wearing much, and it doesn’t really work in a movie for 8-year-olds. You barely see them in the movie as released. They wound up cutting around these characters, and so the rap got cut.
Can you talk a little about adding in the Super Mario Bros. theme music at the end?
Steven’s only note to me was that you can’t use the Super Mario Bros. theme, because everybody always wants to use the Super Mario Bros. theme. When he said that to me, I had, of course, already used the Super Mario Bros. theme, and it was my favorite part of the movie. So I said, “No, I’m not taking that note.” I don’t know if he’s pissed off at me or what, but everybody says it’s their favorite part of the film. After a certain point, the movie is what it is. It’s this bonkers cyberpunk movie, and I think in 2021, you absolutely would just use the Mario Bros. theme. So that’s what we did. The original prologue also uses the theme to Super Mario Bros., and I guess in the elevator, when you see the brothers in their red and green costumes for the first time, they originally played an orchestral Super Mario Bros. theme. The directors vetoed that, but I didn’t know that. Some of the fan edits do that.
I did add the pipe. Somebody’s going to kill me for doing this: I put in the pipe noise when they go down a pipe. It already has the Mario dying noise when the boots go off. I did all this stuff like, “Am I going to get away with this?” But I wasn’t trying to do a fan edit. I really was trying to use every scrap of footage from the work print somehow.
Speaking of the prologue, what inspired you to use footage from the 1925 version of The Lost World?
The prologue to the movie is always very controversial. I think it’s terrible, personally. I think they were freaking out towards the end of editing this movie. “How do we make this a movie for five-year-olds?” So they put in this animated prologue, which makes it more of a kids film. And they brought in Dan Castellaneta, who is Homer Simpson and was on The Tracey Ullman Show and was Earthworm Jim—he’s Mr. Cartoon Voice. So he comes in and does this comedy cartoon prologue. It’s dumb, frankly. It was an attempt to make the movie more kid-friendly, and I don’t think it works. It’s not in the work print. The work print just begins with Koopa stalking this girl in the rain like it’s a horror movie. So that’s a different tone. If you look in the script—this is the one thing I looked in the script for—they’re like, “Oh, there are dinosaurs. And they get hit by a meteor. But then there’s a parallel universe where maybe they didn’t.” All you really need is that the dinosaurs got hit by a meteor. Nobody’s paying attention to Dan Castellaneta doing this comedy bit.
There was a fan edit where a fellow who posts as Dennis—he’s a friend of mine, he’s a guy I did a lot of fan edits with—he did a cut of the Super Mario Bros. movie, and this is how it started. It started with footage from The Lost World of these claymation dinosaurs. In 1993, it was a Gen-X thing to take old silent film footage or old black-and-white footage and do something new with it. So I was like, “Well, that’s how you would start a movie in 1993, if it were aimed at adults or teenagers or MTV.”
Can you talk me through the restoration process?
Visually, the source was Ryan Parente, who’s a fan of the website. Ryan was able to get this VHS tape from the producer, Roland Joffé. It’s a bad-quality VHS tape. And for better or for worse, at this point, I’m a guy that you turn to when you’ve got a low-quality VHS tape that doesn’t work. They wanted someone who could do film restoration, but who could also tell the story in a different way. It was a while before I was able to actually work on the footage. I knew and they knew that we only get one shot at this. VHS is hard to transfer. The VCR has got to be good. The connection’s got to be good. The settings have to be good. And I wasn’t going to restore a bad version of this movie. Skip Elsheimer from the A/V Geeks finally did it. I put two transfers together and I started trying to brighten them up and fix the contrast and bring out more detail and more color …
I was really into using artificial intelligence on this edit. I started using artificial intelligence synthesis to do Remini on the faces, which is going to be controversial, or to do Topaz, or to colorize, to make the work-print VHS, which looks like shit, look more like the Blu-ray, just to synthesize these two sources. I did that for a bunch of shots in this, and I think they look really nice.
The audio editing was also actually really complex, because the audio for the work print is all temp music. It’s very different. I had to bring in sound effects and try to split the dialogue and the music using Spleeter, the audio separation tool …
The restoration notes say that you think this is a superior version of the film—what makes it better?
In this cut, you can follow what these characters are doing the whole time a little better. They’ve got their own storylines. I’m not saying this is Black Panther, but they kind of do have their own storylines here. All the characters in Black Panther have their own storylines. I’m not saying Mario Bros is that smart, but it’s a lot smarter than you’d think.
Koopa has dementia in this extended version—there’s actually a scene about this, where he gets de-evolved a little and he’s kind of confused after that. Koopa is such a self-absorbed narcissist that he’s not paying attention. Iggy and Spike, they’re actually paying attention to what’s going on when people are using them as pawns and nobody respects them. They go from these bumbling henchmen to antifascists. There’s so much more of them. And Koopa doesn’t respect Lena, who’s his girlfriend, who wants to be his queen. Koopa’s interested in this young girl, and Lena’s like, “What is going on here? I’m your girlfriend. Fuck you.” And it’s so much clearer in this work print. In the theatrical cut, they redubbed a few lines where Koopa’s like, “OK, we’ve captured Lena. We understand where Lena is.” In the work print, Koopa has no idea what Lena’s doing, and he doesn’t care. He stops caring about his own girlfriend and his own henchmen. And that’s what bites him in the butt. Because Lena is like, “I’m going to be the queen. I’m going to bridge these two worlds, these two dimensions.” And she electrocutes herself twice doing it. She punches a kid and she bribes a cop, and good for her, because Koopa just stops caring for her. They also cut Daniella a lot. She’s the movie version of Pauline, who’s Mario’s girlfriend.
And I think it’s great that Mario is an old bald guy. He’s a small businessman who’s just trying to not get killed by the mafia. He spends half this cut trying to go up against the mafia and deal with them taking his business from him. He’s just this Italian plumber with a nice Italian girlfriend who goes off on this adventure. And then he comes back and they make spaghetti, and that’s that. He’s not Luigi. Luigi gets the whole, very 20-year-old, “I’m going to get the girl” story. For once, Mario is not the one trying to save the princess. The movie is not the deepest thing in the world. A lot of it is dumb as a bag of hammers, but you can actually follow what’s going on and say, “I get what they were doing here.”