The Super Mario Bros Movie
Nintendo's plumber siblings leap back to the big screen, this time in a fun-enough animated flick that looks stunningly like the games.
April 05, 2023
It took 30 years, plus a warp pipe from live-action to animation, but Super Mario Bros finally gained a cinematic mushroom. While these are peak product-to-screen times — see also: The Last of Us, Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves, Tetris and Air, plus the upcoming Barbie, BlackBerry and latest Transformers flick — Nintendo's plumber siblings were long flushed out of movies thanks to their underperforming first outing. 1993's Bob Hoskins (Snow White and the Huntsman) and John Leguizamo (Violent Night)-starring film, the first-ever live-action video game film, isn't terrible. It followed its own dark path and hit its own wild blocks, something that stands out even more now that slavish obsession to intellectual property and franchise-building is king. If 2023's The Super Mario Bros Movie is a response to its predecessor, it's a happily dutiful one, doing its utmost to copy the video game. The strongest feeling it inspires: making viewers want to bust out their old NES or SNES or Game Boy, or emulators of any of them, or Nintendo's current Switch, and mash buttons as the red-capped, moustachioed, overalls-wearing Mario.
These are also peak product-to-screen-to-purchase times; selling more Super Mario Bros, Mario Kart and Super Smash Bros games is a clear and obvious aim of The Super Mario Bros Movie. To do that, the film truly is as enthusiastic about recreating its various source materials as Mario has been about collecting coins, completing levels and saving Princess Peach since way back in his 8-bit days. Under directors Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic, creators of Teen Titans Go!, the animation looks like it's been ported straight from the console — a feat that's hardly unexpected given that it's all shiny pixels. It's also unsurprising due to Nintendo's recent success in mirroring the games IRL in Universal's Osaka and Hollywood theme parks. The Super Mario Bros Movie will help sell more tickets to those, too.
In those impressive images, Italian Americans Mario (voiced by Chris Pratt, Thor: Love and Thunder) and Luigi (Charlie Day, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia) essentially find themselves in the Super Mario Bros version of The Wizard of Oz. Like the 90s flick, they're also transported to another realm where a villainous creature lusts for power— Bowser (Jack Black, Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood) here, with an army of the turtle-like koopas doing his bidding. A sewer flood whisks Mario and Luigi out of their own world, after they try to fix it to drum up customers for their plumbing business. On the other side of the tunnel, Mario lands in the Mushroom Kingdom and Luigi ends up Bowser's prisoner. Cue a quest, including along the rainbow road, to reunite the brothers, stop Bowser and keep him away from Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy, The Menu) — who definitely isn't a damsel in distress, but the target of Bowser's obsessive affections.
Screenwriter Matthew Fogel (Minions: The Rise of Gru) has kept The Super Mario Bros Movie's story slight, just as Horvath and Jelenic ensure that the tone stays light. Still, while it might star Pratt, there's no The Lego Movie-level smarts, satire and hilarity on offer. Instead, the fun-enough picture is packed with as many nods to the games as it can possibly fit in — and to as many games as it can manage. It's been four decades since Mario Bros initially hit arcades, spinning off from Mario's 1981 introduction in the first Donkey Kong, so there's much to reference. The film brings in the big gorilla (Seth Rogen, The Fabelmans) and his simian pals (Wednesday's Fred Armisen voices Cranky Kong). It gets speeding along that beloved rainbow road, with shells flying and Mad Max: Fury Road coming to mind. The list goes on and cuts far deeper than the obvious; it isn't accurate to say it's full of Easter eggs, though, because it's simply a Super Mario Bros movie stacked with attention to Super Mario Bros detail.
Released beforehand, but still a sight to see within the complete flick, Mario's arrival in the Mushroom Kingdom and his introductory tour by the mushroom-headed Toad (Keegan-Michael Key, Schmigadoon!) is a visual treasure trove. When Peach has him prove he's up to the Bowser-battling mission by hopping through an obstacle course that mirrors Super Mario Bros' levels, it's also spot on. Before that in Brooklyn, rushing to a job gets the side-scrolling treatment — and it's an entertainingly playful touch. Nintendo composer Koji Kondo's famous tunes are worked and interpreted by composer Brian Tyler (Scream VI), too, and well. Of course, a game-to-movie effort can't just splash around familiar sights and sounds, actively court nostalgia, and call it all a film. This one doesn't, but the plot remains noticeably thin, including in its siblings-stick-together theme. It's also indebted to the Minions franchise in much of Bowser and the Koopas' storyline. That's animation house Illumination cribbing from itself, given it's behind Despicable Me and its sequels and continues, and now this.
If the bright, bouncy, vivid and immersive imagery is The Super Mario Bros Movie's main power-up, which it is, it's still no invincibility star. Neither is the fast pace, aka the default mode for most family-friendly animated fare that isn't made by Pixar, Studio Ghibli or Wolfwalkers' Cartoon Saloon, and where the key focus is on throwing constant chaos at kids so that they don't get distracted. And when the stock-standard needle-drops start, because every all-ages-friendly movie has to jam in recognisable songs like 'Holding Out for a Hero' and 'Take on Me' like it's a jukebox musical — a lazy and grating genre staple that won't go away — there's basic Spotify playlist vibes. It might've sparked the Gentleminions fad among cinemagoers who grew up watching yellow babbling critters, but Minions: The Rise of Gru did the same. Cosplaying in red or green outfits to The Super Mario Bros Movie, which'll happen seeing that all things Mario are that adored, won't patch over the template at work here either.
Although it doesn't seem like it when the picture presses start, Horvath and Jelenic are well-aware that they can't have Pratt let's-a-going his way through the film with a stereotypical accent, and don't. They're also comically knowing about it. That said, his casting is neither a coin box nor a banana peel — but his co-stars are winningly chosen. The expressive and energetic Day helps make the case for a big-screen Luigi's Mansion outing to come next. Taylor-Joy gives Peach pluck and determination, on par with the script's commitment to make the character anything but someone who needs rescuing. Key is lively and squeaky, Black growls and pines for Peach with Tenacious D-style glee and Rogan is audibly having a ball. And, while this can't be said about the bulk of this endearingly loving but supremely by-the-numbers film, that's something that The Super Mario Bros Movie delivers but the games can't.
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