The Super Mario Bros. Movie
- Director: Aaron Horvath, Michael Jelenic
- Writer: Matt Fogel
- Starring: Chris Pratt, Charlie Day, Anya Taylor-Joy, Jack Black, Keegan Michael-Key, Seth Rogen, Fred Armisen
Mario has traveled to all sorts of worlds since his introduction in 1985; from the Mushroom Kingdom to the race track to the tennis courts to the Olympic Games, he’s as malleable as any pop culture protagonist. Then again, when your original adventure consists of little more than a side-scrolling series of jumps and sewer pipes, your storytelling options are basically limitless.
And yet, Nintendo’s mustachioed mascot’s only foray into movies was an unmitigated disaster with 1993’s Super Mario Bros. So it’s understandable why Nintendo wouldn’t be willing to try again right away with another film. Enter The Super Mario Bros. Movie 30 years later, a film that is ultimately not as bland as its title, but could still use a little more polish around the edges.
We only spend the first 5-10 minutes of the film in the human world – Brooklyn, to be precise – before upstart plumbing brothers Mario (Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day) are sucked into a mysterious green tube and separated. Mario goes to the Mushroom Kingdom where he meets his instant best friend Toad (Keegan Michael-Key) and Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy), and Luigi to the Dark World, a dour and creepy place with skeleton turtles and Shy Guys galore.
Nintendo, along with Illumination, home of those loveable but predictable Minions, is betting on your familiarity with the Mario franchise, and that’s just fine. Never does the film try to slow down and explain any of the bugnuts creatures or physicality. Here’s a world where Power-Ups come out of glowing yellow cubes, which can give you cat powers or the ability to wield fire. Any questions?
This allows the story to keep humming along, moving from one set piece to another, without much connective tissue or thematic resonance. There does become a point where it feels like directors Michael Jelenic and Aaron Horvath are simply using the film to string together a series of homages to the video games, but they’re staged nicely and lead to some pretty exciting moments. After teaming up with Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen) and his crew, Mario and Peach have to ride in their karts down the Rainbow Road. Screenwriter Matt Fogel’s script barely tries to justify the decision, but it’s a relatively minor quibble because it leads to one of the film’s most propulsive sequences. Still, there’s clearly an emphasis on spectacle over character development. Mario is less a hero who steps forward in the face of adversity and more of a guy who happened to get the right Power-Up at the right time.
The voice cast is uniformly fun, especially Jack Black as Bowser, who’s little more than a lovesick puppy under the guise of a monstrous turtle dragon. Pratt, perhaps facing the biggest uphill climb in voice performances, does a serviceable job navigating around Mario’s famously stereotypical accent and making him a plucky underdog. And Taylor-Joy gives Peach a great amount of depth; she’s never the damsel in distress that she so often is in the games. Jelenic and Horvath show an immense attention to detail with the visuals, making The Super Mario Bros. Movie bright and poppy, and throwing in an abundance of references that both casual and hardcore fans of Mario and Nintendo will find. Despite my usual disdain for the format, I wouldn’t discourage theater goers to see the film in 3D, as it’s clear that certain sequences were designed with it in mind.
The great critic Matt Singer wrote recently about the lack of theatrical offerings for families today, especially for families with younger kids. The Super Mario Bros. Movie may ultimately be little more than an IP-friendly cash grab, a series of inexplicable set pieces glued together with banana peels and magic mushrooms, but I already look forward to returning to the theater and seeing my kids light up at certain moments. Maybe I’m giving the film a bit of a pass because of this, and I don’t doubt that the inevitable sequel(s) will be just as formulaic. (I’m sure my opinion of the film will sour once it hits streaming and my kids have watched it 70 times in a given week.) Video game adaptations have always faced an inherent degree of difficulty, though there have certainly been a few successes of late. The Super Mario Bros. Movie shows that, even with an easily adaptable franchise, there are no easy shortcuts.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie will be available in theaters nationwide on April 5.
- Illumination/Universal is great at getting its films in the conversation for Best Animated Feature. Indeed, Minions: The Rise of Gru came dangerously close to snagging a nomination this year. So I wouldn’t be surprised to see The Super Mario Bros. Movie at least make the shortlist for the category. A nomination could be possible too, depending on the competition.