Super Mario Bros. Movie, The (United States/Japan, 2023)April 06, 2023
It’s bright, colorful, overflowing with energy, and possesses a story so basic that even the most inattentive viewer will have no trouble following along. I think my 3 ½-year old daughter would love it. Older viewers may enjoy the jolt of nostalgia that The Super Mario Bros Movie gives because, after all, this isn’t really a film; it’s a 90-minute commercial designed to remind people of all the great times they once had playing Mario (and Donkey Kong) games. On that level, it’s a passable motion picture, but one can’t help but wonder whether this represents a missed opportunity. Imagine if The Super Mario Bros Movie had been more like The LEGO Movie than The Angry Birds Movie. With all apologies to co-directors Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic (Teen Titans GO!), consider what might have been if Phil Lord & Christopher Miller had been in charge.
This is 100% fan service. Some will argue that’s a good thing. Others will be on the other side of the fence. I understand the value of stuffing a product with Easter Eggs and references, but I can’t help but wish that some of the time and creative energy devoted to the dazzling visuals had been expended on the writing. If someone could be found with no previous recognition of the name, they would likely say this is one of the most idiotic, nonsensical animated movies ever made. Such a person may not exist (and it’s certainly not me – I have spent more hours than I care to admit playing these games) but it’s an indication of how heavily the movie’s success relies on the brand surrounding it.
The story opens in Brooklyn, where brothers Mario (Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day) have sunk all their money into a cheesy TV commercial to promote their foundering plumbing business. When attempting to fix a manhole leak, the brothers discover a strange pipe that proves to be a gateway to the Mushroom Kingdom. After being sucked into the pipe, they are separated with Luigi going the Dark Lands, which are ruled over by the evil Bowser (Jack Black), while Mario meets Toad (Keegan-Michael Key), who takes him to Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy). With Bowser coming on a mission of conquest (and intending to marry the princess, with whom he is smitten), Peach decides to form an alliance with the Jungle Kingdom. In order to do that, however, King Cranky Kong (Fred Armisen) decrees that Peach’s champion, Mario, must defeat the Jungle Kingdom’s champion, Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen), is an arena battle.
Players of the different Mario Brothers/Donkey Kong games will recognize various faithful recreations of levels. One of the best of these is a cart race on the rainbow road. And, although there are some notable character absences (the future appearance of one is hinted at in a post-credits scene), the ones who are present are rendered in ways that won’t disappoint even the most meticulous Mario fan. The voices, on the other hand, may cause some displeasure. Neither Chris Pratt nor Charlie Day opts for an accent (except during the plumbing commercial) and the generic American accents sound flat. Jack Black’s Bowser is at times too nasal and Seth Rogen makes no attempt to disguise his voice so Donkey Kong sounds like, well, Seth Rogen.
The animators went to great lengths to accurately represent (and expand upon) some of the places found in the various video games. No one familiar with any of the Mario games will have any trouble identifying the Mushroom Kingdom. Illumination, the company behind the Despicable Me and Minions features (among many others), has spent money on this movie and it shows. One of the biggest problems with the derided 1993 Super Mario Brothers is that it looked cheap; that’s not the case here. Early in the movie, there’s a subtle nod to the side-scrolling approach of the early games and references like that one continue throughout.
Still, by sticking so close to the look and feel of the source material, The Super Mario Bros Movie comes across as something more desirous of being played than watched. I could see this adventure being great fun if approached with game controller in hand. Sitting in a movie theater, however, I found myself wanting more, as if I was only getting part of the experience. But The Super Mario Bros Movie is not intended to work in the same way that conventional films do. It’s not about cinematic enjoyment; it’s about expanding a brand. As such, it will make a lot of money, spawn sequels and spin-offs, and become another extension of a commercial feedback loop.
Super Mario Bros. Movie, The (United States/Japan, 2023)
Cast: Chris Pratt, Charlie Day, Anya Taylor-Joy, Jack Black, Seth Rogen, Fred Armisen, Keegan-Michael Key
Screenplay: Matthew Fogel
Music: Brian Tyler
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures