‘The Super Mario Bros. Movie’ Review: A Not-So-Super Adaptation
It would be very instructive to watch a double feature of the new Super Mario Bros. Movie and the live-action Super Mario Bros. from 1993. Together they offer a clear snapshot of Hollywood’s evolving relationship to intellectual property. Thirty years ago, movie studios thought they knew best about what worked onscreen, and so they mostly threw out what made the Super Mario games popular when they turned them into a motion picture. The result: A bizarre cinematic tale involving two plumbers who battle Dennis Hopper for control of a dinosaur city by shooting him with devolution guns.
2023’s The Super Mario Bros. Movie, on the other hand, is not only heavily inspired by the games, it was co-produced by Nintendo. Their logo precedes the film, while the closing credits acknowledge the company’s current and former presidents. From a corporate branding perspective, they must be pleased with the results; The Super Mario Bros. Movie could definitely be better, but it couldn’t be more slavishly devoted to the look, feel, characters, design, gags, settings, music, power-ups, sound effects, gameplay, level construction, and even the dialogue of the Super Mario games. In fact, I would be willing to wager that no film in history has included more uses of the phrase “Mamma mia!” than The Super Mario Bros. Movie — not even the one that was titled Mamma Mia! and included multiple performances of the song “Mamma Mia.”
If you think the very notion that a Super Mario film exists where Mario yells “Mamma mia!” a lot is funny, this computer-animated cartoon is for you. If you think it is absolutely hilarious when Mario says “Mamma mia!” in slow-motion while jumping through the air, you might have written and/or directed this motion picture. (Seriously; The Super Mario Bros. Movie repeats the gag of Mario falling while exclaiming various things in slo-mo so many times I started to wonder if it was a reference to one of the Mario games I haven’t played.)
There are almost no actual jokes here beyond the central conceit that they took all the accumulated weirdness from 40 years of Super Mario games and put it up on screen, logic be damned. If you want an additional layer of meaning or humor, you won’t find it. As a movie, The Super Mario Bros. Movie ain’t much; barely 80 minutes of colorful action and winking game references. As a feature-length commercial for the Nintendo games, it’s reasonably effective.
Another reason it might be interesting to watch the two Mario Bros. movies side-by-side: For all their stylistic and visual differences, they start from the exact same premise. In this animated update, Italian brothers Mario (Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day) live in Brooklyn and work as plumbers. Through a twist of fate, they wind up riding a pipe to another dimension populated by bizarre creatures. There, they meet brave Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy) and must battle Bowser (Jack Black), a power-mad turtle man who has acquired a “Super Star” that will render him invincible and allow him to conquer the Princess’ Mushroom Kingdom.
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Although that reads like an impressive array of acting talent, the voices in The Super Mario Bros. Movie are depressingly underutilized. Directors Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic seem to have made the calculus that the true stars here are Mario and the rest of the Nintendo character library, and utilized their actors accordingly. Chris Pratt brought so much personality to the role of Emmet in The LEGO Movies; here he alternates between generic line readings and an imitation of Mario’s more high-pitched, stereotypically Italian video game voice. (The voice actor who portrays Mario and Luigi in Nintendo’s games, Charles Martinet, is on hand for a cameo.)
Anya Taylor-Joy makes even less of an impression as Peach, and Seth Rogen doesn’t even attempt to sound like Donkey Kong, or anyone else for that matter; he just talks (and laughs) like himself the whole time. The closest thing to a distinctive performance in the film comes from Jack Black, whose Bowser is evil in a misguided attempt to win the Princess’ affections. At several points, he even tries serenading her, using songs so lyrically sparse and repetitive it appears Jack Black improvised them from scratch during one of his recording sessions.
As a child of the 1980s, I spent countless hours playing the various iterations of Mario, starting with the very first Mario Bros. arcade game, and continuing right through Super Mario Galaxy on the Wii. (I don’t own a Switch, forgive me.) Many of these Marios were, are, and will remain delightful adventures full of imagination and whimsical humor. They are also widely available on a variety of platforms; I’ve got an NES Classic sitting next to my television right now that contains a bunch of the games.
So the question then becomes: Why make a very faithful Super Mario movie that only exists to recreate the games on the big screen? What is the point of a Super Mario you can’t play? To be truly worthwhile, a Mario film needs to offer something the games can’t. For the most part, The Super Mario Bros. Movie doesn’t. Every so often, there’s a moment of invention or clever imagery that goes beyond what’s possible even in modern games; a camera movement that’s wild and frenetic and exciting, or a playful spin on an old Mario gaming trope.
Most of those bursts of fun come in the scenes inspired by the Mario Kart franchise, whose insertion into The Super Mario Bros. Movie’s wafer-thin story doesn’t really serve a coherent purpose, but does at least enliven the film with some visual creativity. For a couple minutes, it starts to feel like the film is building on top of the Super Mario mythology rather than simply regurgitating it. The rest reminded me of the attract mode that would automatically start to play on old arcade games if no one pressed start: A bunch of computerized images going through the motions over and over.
-Directors Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic are two of the key creative forces behind Teen Titans Go! and Teen Titans Go! to the Movies, which I have watched numerous times, both with and without my kids. None of that franchise’s anarchic energy is present here. It would have been very welcome.
- Unlike the original Super Mario Bros. game, where Mario fought to rescue the Princess, The Super Mario Bros. Movie follows Mario as he teams up with the Princess to rescue Luigi. And yet once they begin their quest, it repeatedly falls on the bumbling Mario to complete various tasks while the brave and tough Peach mostly watches from the sidelines. The fact that Mario is voiced by Chris Pratt makes their dynamic extra weird; it’s like The LEGO Movie, which also starred Pratt, without the knowing humor about the cliché of a “special” man who is declared “the chosen one” over a talented woman who has to play second fiddle to an incompetent purely because of her gender.
-How old is Mario supposed to be in this movie? He lives with his parents in a child’s bedroom covered in video game posters, can’t bear to be separated from his brother, and desperately seeks his dad’s approval. He also has a bushy mustache and runs his own plumbing company. If I had to guess, I would say movie Mario is anywhere between ... 15 and 45?