Mario had a real tough break the last time he was on the silver screen, with 1993’s “Super Mario Bros.” being a legendary disaster not only from a quality standpoint, but from a production one as well. It is no surprise that it took Nintendo 30 years to release another film with their titular Italian plumber. Given how outlandish and downright cartoon-y Mario games are, a CG-animated film for kids is exactly the angle to do such a film.
Illumination’s “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” serves as an unneeded origin story for Mario (Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day), who debut as struggling independent Italian plumbers in Brooklyn, N.Y., who spent most of their cash on a commercial for their business. Their lives change when they stumble upon a magic green pipe that takes Mario to the Mushroom Kingdom and Luigi to an area ruled by the villainous Bowser (Jack Black). Bowser is leader of an army of Koopas (turtle enemies) and pines after Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy), who is princess of the Mushroom Kingdom.
Peach’s kingdom is made up of Toads (allies with mushroom-shaped heads) who, if you’ve ever played the games, you’ll know aren’t very good at defending themselves outside of the handful of times they serve as Players 3 and 4 (Luigi is Player 2). This means that Peach has to battle Bowser on her own, though she enlists the help of Mario, who she has to train to use the world’s power ups and explain the very loose rules of the road. They are also joined by the only brave Toad (Keegan-Michael Key), who serves as Mario’s first friend in the Mushroom Kingdom.
Because they are outnumbered, Peach has them travel to the Jungle Kingdom to enlist the help of Cranky Kong’s (Fred Armisen) army. But to get him to agree, they must first defeat his son, Donkey Kong (Seth Rogan). After that, they mount go-karts the likes that are often seen in “Mario Kart” and make their way via Rainbow Road to Bowser’s Castle.
The best thing about this movie is its aesthetics. It absolutely bleeds elements from different “Mario” games and the overwhelming sense of nostalgia fans of the series will get from this is worth the price of admission alone. This also extends to its soundtrack, which has an excellent selection of classic “Mario” fare, as well as newer additions, like the main theme of “Super Mario Galaxy.” This also applies to the variety of enemies and creature we see, as anything from Lumas to King Bob-omb from “Super Mario 64” make an appearance.
Having Luigi be the one captured most of the film instead of Peach also cleverly subverts these games’ damsel trope, and it makes sense for this story; Mario is a newcomer in this world and needs someone to show him the ropes.
Black’s Bowser is also excellent, bringing an air of silliness that is present in some of the games (namely the handheld RPG series), while also posing a threat — albeit one that we don’t take too seriously. To be fair, Bowser is almost never a challenge even in the games — “Mario” is a franchise meant to be enjoyable and accessible, not necessarily hardcore.
Unfortunately, that is where the good ends.
For all of its faithfulness to the look and feel of the games, it all amounts to aesthetically-pleasing nonsense. It feels like the filmmakers tried to cram 30 years’ worth of “Mario” games into this film, which leaves us with an absolute mess of a world and movie. Mario’s games usually always have clearly defined rules and limitations, but it’s impossible to have that when you try to blend all of the games together, specifically distinctly different games like the “Mario Kart” racing games to the 3D platformers.
From a worldbuilding perspective, the Mushroom Kingdom doesn’t feel like a world that actually had a history before Mario was dropped into it. This is usually subverted in the games because we often start with Bowser, Mario, Peach and company already having a pre-existing relationship we, as the gamer, start in midst of. The rivalry between Mario and Bowser has been going on for as long as anyone can remember and will presumably go on for just as long, though it’s worth noting that the “whys” and “hows” aren’t the point of those games — Nintendo is solely focused on making games people think are fun. Narrative takes a firm backseat to gameplay.
This becomes a problem when you try to adapt something like this for film, where the “whys,” “hows” and overall story play a much bigger role. Truthfully, I think the only way to make a good “Mario” film would be to focus on telling the most basic, straightforward story you can and do your best not to get overwhelmed by the franchise’s abundance of mechanics, lore and multiple different sub-franchises.
If you’ve never played a “Mario” game, I’m not sure what you’re getting out of this. It is wholly too reliant on audiences recognizing things from past games to the point where I think this film is hard to follow for non-fans. It’s essentially a bunch of chaotic set pieces strung together by the thinnest of plots.
There’s also the celebrity voice acting, which is somehow worse than the internet made it out to be. Of the main cast, Black is the only one who belongs. Every other main character sounds like the filmmakers grabbed someone off the street to voice them. Pratt gives a woody and unenthusiastic performance. Taylor-Joy gives minimal effort but is hopelessly miscast. It feels like Key doesn’t know who he’s playing. Rogan and his humor feel awkwardly out of place.
The film would have benefited greatly from hiring actual voice actors, as the celebrity cast — except for Black — all feel like they don’t want to be there. Voice acting is a separate craft and skill from live-action acting, and it’s clear that everyone save Black just doesn’t have the chops to bring these characters to life. The free marketing this film got from having big names people recognize was not worth it — I would much prefer three hours of Charles Martinet’s Mario over what we got in this film.
This movie is a mess, albeit a pleasing one. Illumination was a great choice for bringing to life the Mushroom Kingdom aesthetically, but it needed someone else in the director’s chair and an almost completely different cast to make this work. This could have been Illumination’s equivalent of “The Lego Movie,” but it loses whatever message it was trying to tell and goals it was trying to achieve among 30 years worth of Super Nintendo cartridge dust and the need to push the film’s brand recognition in our face every three minutes.
This barely feels like a movie; it feels more akin to a 92-minute advertisement. The best thing it does is remind you much better games you should play instead of watching this movie.
“The Super Mario Bros. Movie” gets a 5/10
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