When a live-action Super Mario Bros. movie was first announced all the way back in the Fall of 1990, expectations were high – from both the fans and those involved in the project respectively.
After all, this would be the first major motion picture based on a video game. And not just any video game, but the biggest and most recognizable one in the history of the world!
But, it’s not like a bad video game movie had ever been made up until that point. What could possibly go wrong?
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Since launching on the Nintendo Entertainment System five years earlier, the Super Mario Bros. brand had grown into a commercial and financial success of unprecedented proportions.
In addition to three massively successful games, there was also a Saturday morning cartoon, an official breakfast cereal, and even a Happy Meal promotion with McDonald’s.
From trading cards to t-shirts, Mario and his friends were everywhere. And, fans couldn’t get enough! In fact, during a national survey taken that same year, it was revealed that more North American kids recognized Super Mario over Mickey Mouse!
Thus, bringing the popular plumber brothers and all their Mushroom Kingdom pals to the big screen just seemed to be the next logical step in Hollywood’s eyes. And, with such an impressive track record, it appeared to be a surefire hit. One that just couldn’t miss.
Or, so they thought!
Game Over, Man!
Over budget and plagued with delays, Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel’s Super Mario Bros. movie was a box office disaster. Hitting the big screen in May 1993 alongside an impressive $15-million advertising campaign, the flick proved that even a seemingly bulletproof IP was fallible if approached incorrectly.
That said, I’m not here to just drop a big ‘ol Bob-omb smack dab in the middle of your Mario Day celebration. So, instead of putting a damper on things, let’s flip the coin and take a look at one of the more positive things to come out of the whole Super Mario Bros. movie fiasco. And no, I’m not talking about George Clinton’s rather fantastic take on Walk The Dinosaur!
I’m talking, of course, about the toys! More specifically, a rather ingenious selection of plastic playthings courtesy of a little company called Ertl.
Follow me through the warp zone… If you dare!
Playing With Power
The Super Mario Bros. movie toys first hit store shelves in the spring of 1993. As mentioned, they were produced by Ertl. Not Kenner. Not Mattel. Not Playmates. Ertl. As in, the same company responsible for mass-producing diecast metal models of everything from tractors to the cars of the Fast And Furious films.
This was an odd choice, to be sure. Ertl just wasn’t known for making action figures. In fact, I can still remember visibly scowling when I read that information in an old issue of Hot Dog magazine. But, to the surprise of all, they won the license rights. And, in all fairness, they really didn’t do that bad of a job with them!
Heck, even before I saw the toys in person, I knew I wanted them! This thanks largely in part to the film’s numerous snappy TV spots and Ertl’s rather fun little commercial of a tough talkin’ kid totally oblivious to the fact that a Goomba was trying to break into his bedroom.
What can I say? I was a seven-year-old kid growing up right in the thick of Mario Mania! I had no way of knowing that the movie was going to bomb. Nor did I have any idea just how far from the source material the final product would stray.
All I knew is that I was crazy about Super Mario, and I wanted to experience it in all its forms – both on and off of my Nintendo!
The main line of Ertl’s Super Mario Bros. toys consisted of six individual action figures. These included both Mario and Luigi, as well as the evil President Bowser Koopa, dimwit sidekicks Iggy and Spike, and a Goomba.
Released on colorful card backs, each of the figures stood between 4.5″ – 5″ tall depending on the character. They also featured passable likenesses to their on-screen counterparts and the same basic five points of articulation that defined most of the mainstream action figure lines in the industry at that time.
A selection of character-specific accessories were also included with each one for some added playability, with Mario and Luigi receiving some beefed up plumbing tools and the remaining baddies in the line getting armed up with either the signature Devolution Gun or a flamethrower.
Sadly, familiar faces like Princess Daisy, Toad, and Big Bertha were left out of the line completely. And, while there were plans in place to release additional characters like Yoshi and Rex Koopa, these wouldn’t end up making it beyond the prototype phase by the time all was said and done.
Regardless, Ertl still attempted to give consumers a wide range of Super Mario Bros. movie products while they could. These ranged from a main line of toys as well as 12″ talking versions of Mario and Luigi, and even a small selection of roleplaying items that included a set of walkie-talkies and a kid-sized Devo Gun complete with lights and sounds!
Like I said, Ertl didn’t do a bad job with the Mario movie license. Clearly they hoped to see the beloved plumber brothers’ popularity move lots of product for them leading up to the holiday season. They were all in here, and the end result was a pretty fun little line of merchandise to be sure.
What Had Come Before
Now, when compared to the Super Mario action figures we are getting today from the likes of Jakks Pacific and Bandai, the Ertl movie toys don’t really stack up. The articulation is limited, and the overall paint and design execution is extremely simplistic.
But, for those of us growing up in the early 1990s with Kenner’s Jurassic Park and Hasbro’s G.I. Joe Star Brigade renting retail space, these toys just ticked all the right boxes!
Up until then, Super Mario toys were few and far between. There were countless soft plush dolls but no action figures. This was really interesting when you consider the incredible popularity of the gaming franchise at the time! That said, Nasta had released a small selection of Nintendo wind-up toys a few years prior in 1989.
There was also a series of smaller-scale Nintendo PVC figurines available to collect at most major retailers from a company called Applause. Even Hasbro got in on the fun with their Nintendo Trophy Figure Collection around the same time.
Now, those were all well and good. And, for a Mario maniac like me, they were heaven sent. However, these new movie figures would mark the first official time that fully articulated versions of Mario and Luigi were available – even if some of the designs in the line were a far cry from what was being featured in the video games!
Do The Mario!
Ertl made each of their Super Mario Bros. movie toys nice and chunky. Made of quality materials, the aesthetic was on par with what fans were getting in other lines at the time like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. They never felt as though they were going to break if handled too roughly.
These toys were made for play above all else, and Ertl made sure to capitalize on this fact by going a step further and expanding the ranks of the line with some pretty neat additions in the form of both the Crash Action Police Car and the Devo Chamber playset respectively.
Both of these came loaded with additional features that really took the overall playability of the line to a whole new level!
Kids could set Mario and Luigi loose on the mean streets of Dinohattan to scoop up and capture Goombas in the Crash Action Police Car, or devolve their toys within the fun-filled Devo Chamber!
Add to that additional gimmicks like blow apart action damage, and the fact that an exclusive Goomba figure was released in the line’s sole playset, and you had a series of toys based upon one of the biggest intellectual properties of the day that really should’ve enjoyed some major staying power at retail!
However, it was not to be.
Sadly, despite being a quality product with plenty of potential to expand upon its initial offerings – one that even went to market brandishing the official Nintendo seal of quality, Ertl’s Super Mario Bros. movie toys fell flat shortly after reaching stores.
They lingered on pegs for much longer than expected, and soon found their way to the clear-out bins of every major early 90s retailer from K-Mart to Toys R Us.
Disappointing to be sure, but not at all surprising when you consider the critical panning received by the film during its theatrical run.
Yes, the movie did garner some praise from the likes of The Chicago Tribune and The Washington Post. A select few praised the film for its use of special effects, as well as its fun musical score. And, it did end up under consideration for the Best Visual Effects award at the 66th Academy Awards.
However, after being unable to recoup its budget at the box office, and being heralded as one of the worst films of 1993 – a bit harsh, if you ask this Mario fan! Did they even see Robocop 3 or Mr. Nanny? – the Super Mario Bros. movie quickly ran out of lives.
With the failure of the film, Ertl’s Super Mario Bros. movie toys quickly faded out of the public’s eye. However, it wasn’t game over just yet.
Press Start To Continue!
In the years since the release of the Super Mario Bros. movie, the film has actually increased in popularity and amassed quite the cult following.
Adults who saw it on the big screen as kids back in the summer of 1993 now see this former box office bomb in a whole new light – that of it being so bad, it’s actually good!
In fact, the movie’s popularity has grown so much over the last few decades that it even received a special Blu-ray release over in the United Kingdom for its 20th anniversary! This in addition to numerous special screenings in New York, Dallas, Los Angels, and Denver to name but a few.
And yes, this nostalgic refueling has even extended back to Ertl’s Super Mario Bros. movie toys.
As previously mentioned, after the movie flopped, it didn’t take long for the toys to find their way to the clearance rack. Even on the third-party market as early as ten years ago, you could snag one of the “vintage” figures for $10 a pop still sealed in their original packaging.
However, nostalgia is a powerful force!
Nowadays, those exact same figures that lingered in Zellers and Woolco retailers well into the spring of 1994 are fetching close to eight times that much on your regular handful of virtual auction sites regardless of condition.
Toys that were once thrown in free of charge to cement a deal at your local toy show are now fetching some premium prices from fans and collectors eager to snap up anything from this rather derided part of Super Mario’s past.
No one is giving these toys away now, and premium examples are currently fetching prices comparable to the more well-known and popular brands of the day from the likes of Kenner and Playmates.
Not bad for a series of toys based on a film that no one really wanted to admit they saw. Let alone liked. This just goes to show you, sometimes something good really can come out of the worst situations!
I hope you have enjoyed this brief look back at Ertl’s Super Mario Bros. movie toys.
These fun, colorful chunks of plastic pushed Mario and his pals into a whole new era of action figure manufacturing. In addition, dare I say that they also set the stage for much of the success that the portly plumber has enjoyed in the toy isle ever since!
While the film upon which they are based did not perform as intended, there is no denying Ertl saw something special when they scooped up the license all those years ago. Whether it be dollar signs or a genuine desire to appease the masses of Mario fans across the globe, the end result was a really great little line of toys that will forever be remembered as a much needed extra life within the lifespan of the Super Mario Bros. movie.
Happy Mario Day, folks!
Special thanks to my very accommodating friends at the Super Mario Bros. Movie Archives for supplying images and helping make this article possible!