Saturday, November 18, 2006

The Super Mario Bros. Super Show! Vol. 2
TV on DVD review by Sombrero Grande

I’ve been riding a wave of nostalgia recently, renting DVDs of old ‘80s cartoons I watched as a kid. Maybe it’s got something to do with my eager anticipation of getting to play old Nintendo games on the new Wii’s Virtual Console, but I picked up The Super Mario Bros. Super Show! Vol. 2 on DVD this past week. The Super Show! ran in syndication on weekday afternoons for the 1989-’90 television season. This is a show I remember devotedly watching after school as a kid. Honestly there wasn’t a whole lot other than the fact I liked the show that I remembered about it, but once the familiar theme song started playing on the first episode of the first disc, I was instantly transported back in time.

While there’s definitely an upside to the nostalgic revisiting of shows one enjoyed as a kid, there’s also a nasty snag that can develop if/when the show in question doesn’t quite stack up to how you remembered it.

Honestly, watching The Super Mario Bros. Super Show! now with adult eyes, I don’t know what the heck I was thinking as a kid. I don’t know what the heck the writers were thinking either. I actually managed to wrangle my wife into watching a few episodes with me and we found ourselves frequently turning with perplexed and bewildered expressions toward each other before breaking into befuddled laughter throughout each episode.

But before I get into specifics of the bizarre dreadfulness of the show itself, let me first tout some of the pleasant nostalgic memories watching the Super Show! reawakened for me. The moment the theme song began it was like a long-lost record had been unearthed in my brain and suddenly started playing as I realized I remembered every goofy lyric. Watching the show again after all these years took me back to vacations I spent with my family at a beachfront hotel we stayed at annually. I can distinctly remember coming back into our room after spending essentially the whole day playing in the sand and ocean, and I’d dry off wrapped in a big, warm towel, watching afternoon cartoons like the Super Show! with the smell of sunscreen and beach bonfires heavy in the air. It’s funny how these kinds of welcome memories can be instantly triggered in just a few seconds of watching an old cartoon show like this one.

Every episode of the Super Show! features a “preview” of the Legend of Zelda cartoon I had completely forgotten about. I suddenly remembered the Mario Bros. show ran only Monday through Thursday with the Zelda cartoon taking up its time slot every Friday. As soon as the first preview began I also recalled how much I despised the Zelda episodes for taking away my Mario Bros. cartoons every Friday.

As a Nintendo fan and someone with very fond memories of playing all the old Mario games, I can’t help but want to cut this show some serious slack. Some of my childhood excitement of seeing Mario and Luigi (both animated and live-action) involved in goofy adventures survives and still manages to bring a smile to my face. Unfortunately, it’s gaping flaws I never paid attention to as a kid that sabotage my ability to find anything but a passing interest or morbid curiosity in the show as an adult.

While I can appreciate that the show manages to include many of the characters, sounds and even music from the old Mario games in its episodes, it’s thoroughly disappointing that the ties to its inspiration stop abruptly there. It’s not as horrible as that soul-crushing Super Mario Bros. movie in which merely the characters’ names carried over, but the Super Show! still veers off into bafflingly divergent territories.

In the show’s animated segments, Mario, Luigi, Toad and the Princess (the four playable characters in the Super Mario Bros. 2 video game) find King Koopa (the main villain in the first Super Mario Bros. game) terrorizing a different “land” of the Mushroom Kingdom and have to stop him. Koopa usually escapes in the end, immediately after getting caught, using some kind of warp potion. When this happens, instead of continuing to pursue him, Mario decides it’s high time to chow down on some form of pasta.

The biggest problem, as I see it, is that almost never do these “lands” in the show stem from anything in the actual games. At first I assumed they were inspired by the different “lands” in Super Mario Bros. 3 (such as Ice Land, Giant Land, Desert Land, etc.) but a quick search on the ‘net uncovered the fact that the Super Show! broadcasted more than a year before that game ever came out. So I’m even more confused as to their reason for existing in the show, beyond being easy settings in which to stage half-assed plot lines that would rather rip off any movie or unoriginal story than attempt to relate in even the vaguest of senses to the Mario games. A quick peek at some of the episode titles on this 4-disc DVD set should make painfully obvious the lack of originality and eagerness to adapt connectionless stories to involve the Mario characters (titles like: “The Ten Koopmandments,” “Koopenstein,” “Mario and the Red Baron Koopa,” “The Trojan Koopa” and “Little Red Riding Princess”). There’s even an episode where Mario and friends have to help a mushroom version of George Washington battle a redcoat-wearing King Koopa. Come on!

In one outing, the Mario Bros. crew visits “Spy Land” to rescue spy James Blonde from villain Koopfinger. Here a bald King Koopa plans to steal all the gold from Fort Hard Knox with a henchman rat who looks like Oddjob and even throws his bowler hat as a weapon. Honestly, what young kid watching that episode is going to have ever seen Goldfinger, know who Oddjob is, or recognize the caricature of Pussy Galore that shows up in a few scenes? It’s bad enough that the writers of the show see fit to ignore Mario’s video game background so thoroughly but to brazenly mimic other stories in popular culture (and adult popular culture, at that) just reeks of unapologetic laziness.

The animation often exhibits the same laziness as the writing, frequently plunging down to the depths of sheer ludicrousness. In the episode “Mighty McMario & The Pot of Gold,” Luigi and Toad go running through a door that the animators neglected to have open. In “Flatbush Koopa,” Luigi’s mouth speaks both his and Mario’s dialogue during one conversation. In “Crocodile Mario,” characters are routinely placed standing off of ledges in the background paintings, so it appears as though they are unexplainably floating in mid-air. They would have seriously ticked me off if all these gaffs weren’t so hilarious to discover.

But the animated segments are only one part of the multi-layered Super Show!. Each episode begins and ends with a live-action skit featuring Mario (played by professional wrestler “Captain” Lou Albano) and Luigi (Danny Wells) in their stylized basement Brooklyn plumbers’ office. These segments are usually very short with very simple storylines that wove in some form of guest star. Being an afternoon kids’ show, you can imagine the status of the guest stars are often less than thrilling. Think “the older brother from Mr. Belvedere” and “the kid from Family Ties” here. Other professional wrestlers, like Sgt. Slaughter and “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, make guest appearances, as does Vanna White in one episode, but by-and-large the celebrity guests aren’t likely to be recognizable to kids today. Often, perhaps when an actual celebrity wasn’t available, actors would show up pretending to be famous figures like Dracula, Vincent Van Gogh, Santa Claus, Queen Elizabeth II and Robin Leach.

Add in time for commercials, the animated segment, the Zelda Friday episode preview and the multiple “intro” segments (one for the whole Super Show!, one for the animated portion and one for Zelda which played in every episode) and you’re left with a surprisingly short amount of time for the live-action portion. As a result, the “stories” that are told in these heavily-laugh-track-laced skits are often extremely basic and wrap up usually with only the most minimal of resolutions. In one episode, “Goodbye Mr. Fish,” an old woman from upstairs asks Mario and Luigi to look after her pet fish, Mario feeds it a meatball, it dies, the old woman returns and the brothers find another fish at the last minute to replace it with. That’s it. End of story. With the hurried, disjointed nature of all the show’s segments, it seems like there wasn’t enough material to flush any one out to make it a show of its own (animated Mario, live-action Mario or even Zelda) so they all got cobbled together here to make for one Super Show! that’s anything but.

When each episode ends, Mario, Luigi and their guest star encourage viewers to “do the Mario” during the end credits. Here lies the show’s one lasting, so-bad-it’s-good memory that’s nearly impossible to forget. Somebody working on this show actually wrote lyrics to Mario’s signature tune that featured prominently in the original Super Mario Bros. game. Now, as a young child playing video games, I have to admit that I would often come up with lyrics of my own for video game music that would be running in my head as I played, and the lyrics some “professional writer” came up with here are absolutely no better than anything I ever conceived in that impromptu scenario. Allow me to spell them out:

Do the Mario!
Swing your arms from side to side,
Come on, it’s time to go, do the Mario!
Take one step, and then again,
Let’s do the Mario,
All together now!
You got it!
It’s the Mario!
Just like thaaaaat!

If you get nothing else from this show, you must take away the knowledge of how to “do the Mario” along with the mental image of Albano awkwardly performing the “dance” in front of a blue screen, frequently losing the beat and appearing to nearly lose his balance at several points. It’s sheer so-bad-it’s-good bliss.

If you’ve perhaps got these episodes recorded on a VHS tape somewhere, upgrading to the DVD probably isn’t going to make that much of a difference visually as none of the episodes look terribly pristine and some seem borderline unwatchable. That is, if many of the stories themselves weren’t already pretty much unwatchable.

In addition to the 24 episodes provided, extras on the Vol. 2 4-disc set include 4 “bonus episodes” (these are just the animated segments without their live-action wrap-around skits--perhaps they couldn’t get the DVD rights for the “celebrity” guests for these?), “The Worlds of The Super Mario Bros. Super Show! Concept Art Gallery” (a look at early drawings of the animated backgrounds), “Interactive Tour of the Mario Bros. Plumbing” (an interesting but shallow look at the seldom-utilized background elements in the live-action set--the Ratigator in particular was simply too cool not to have gotten more screen time), “Meeting Mario: A Fan’s Tale” (the not-terribly-interesting story of a fan getting lost on the way to meet Albano at a signing for the Vol. 1 DVD) and a handful of photos of a few folks in Mario Bros.-inspired Halloween costumes in the “Super Mario Bros. Fan Costume Gallery.”

Being a nostalgic title, your mileage is likely to vary depending on the fondness of your recollections of the show. New fans are unlikely to be made with this as kids today will probably see the pre-Super Mario Bros. 3 incarnations of Mario and his crew, their adventures through ‘80s movie stories and unfamiliar guest stars as being a bit outdated. Honestly, I can remember enjoying the show as a kid, so it fulfilled its purpose well back then, effectively serving as bookends for youth-targeted commercials. To my adult eyes, it’s lost a lot of its luster. For my money, your nostalgic Nintendo cash will likely be better spent on buying the original, timeless Mario games to play on the Wii’s Virtual Console.


This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?