It’s been a long time between drinks for Mario and Luigi at the movies. The absolutely gonzo and bizarre 1993 live-action adaptation of the classic game was such a notorious critical and financial failure that Nintendo refused to license their intellectual properties for film adaptations for over two decades. And in hindsight, their decision was a prophetic one. Films based on video games developed a poor reputation for being lackluster adaptations that aren’t entirely faithful to the source material, a stigma that very much still remains and a hurdle that very few have managed to overcome.
But after Nintendo’s partnership with Universal in 2015 to create a “Super Nintendo World” at their Parks in both Japan and Hollywood, another cinematic attempt at Super Mario Bros. was all but certain to be on the horizon. Therefore, it’s of no surprise that Illumination, the new titan of animation that emerged in the 2010s would be the one to do so. This beloved franchise in the hands of a company that has grossed over $8B from just 12 theatrical releases is Universal and Nintendo joining hands and gleefully creating yet another license to print money.
So now, a whole thirty years on from their last big-screen appearance, The Super Mario Bros. Movie is here and strangely enough, it establishes the titular fraternity in an eerily similar fashion as the ’93 version. Mario and Luigi (voiced by Chris Pratt and Charlie Day respectively) are bumbling, hapless plumbers in the heart of Brooklyn. One day when investigating the sewers to fix a burst water main, they stumble upon a magical green pipe that transports them to a fantastical world, but separates the brothers in the process. Luigi lands in the Darklands, a fire-and-brimstone hellscape overruled by the cantankerous Bowser (Jack Black), while Mario lands in the vibrant, candy-colored Mushroom Kingdom, ruled by the elegant yet daring Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy). With Mario desperate to find Luigi and Peach stopping at nothing to save her kingdom from Bowser’s army, the pair team as they set off on an adventure across this strange and mysterious land.
From the opening, it becomes very clear the strengths of this film lie within the visuals. The character and environment design from the game lends itself wonderfully to Illumination’s very expressive and cartoonish animation style, even if by unfortunate design they look a little toyetic and plasticky. So when these classic designs are elevated with a blockbuster Hollywood budget, the level of detail on screen is eye-popping, especially with the textures of the character’s clothing and hair. However, the other thing that is most apparent about The Super Mario Bros. Movie is that it’s market tested to death; as if every single piece of feedback from studio notes and test audiences was taken onboard. Even with the guaranteed four-quadrant, reviewer-proof box office home run they have on their hands, The Super Mario Bros. Movie weirdly has no confidence or conviction in what they are making, but also trying to please every demographic they possibly can.
To its credit, the film does implement aspects of the games into the filmmaking throughout, and while some are clever and creative, the majority are clunkily shoehorned in for the sake of fan service and easter eggs. For every moment where the movements of both the characters and the camera perfectly emulate the platformer-style gameplay of the source material, you get multiple instances where a mechanic or feature from the game goes far beyond being just an easter egg and in one case, out of nowhere becomes the focus of an entire setpiece. This sequence in question (that I will snarkily dub as Mad Max: Rainbow Road) is the most painfully egregious instance where a beloved part of the games, both the kart racing and the Rainbow Road map, are crammed into the film for no reason other than obligatory nostalgia.
As a result, the writing and direction of the film, especially in regard to the tone, is a tangled mess. Directors Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic previously wrote Teen Titans Go! To The Movies, and The Super Mario Bros. Movie opens with a similar style of tongue-in-cheek irreverence and self-reflexivity to that film. Mario and Luigi are introduced via a low-rent, self-produced TV commercial for their plumbing company where they are using the over-the-top Italian accents they’re synonymous with, and then cuts to Mario and Luigi watching the commercial in a pizzeria and asking each other if they thought the accents were too much. To wrap this meta gag up in a neat little bow, Charles Martinet, who has been the voice of Mario and Luigi in video games for over 30 years, makes a cameo as a patron in the pizzeria and later in the film, also voices Mario and Luigi’s father. This style of humor along with any moment of slapstick violence where Mario either keeps failing an obstacle course or fights Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen) in an arena battle is genuinely funny, but frustratingly, it’s mostly usurped in favor of humor that is more kid-friendly. This means more immature jokes, tired anachronisms, and the entirety of how Bowser is portrayed. The menacing and imposing villain of the games has been reduced to a stale-as-old-bread one-note joke of being utterly infatuated and romantically obsessed with Princess Peach. Even with Jack Black giving a good vocal performance, he just can’t make it funny, no matter how many silly love ballads he sings.
And it’s not just the writing that feels compromised and hindered by these choices. Bryan Tyler composes a really fun score for the film that incorporates Koji Kondo’s instantly-recognizable music from the games and elevates it for a more epic and cinematic tone. But again, because The Super Mario Bros. Movie is a film desperate to please absolutely everyone, they feel the need to obnoxiously insert a plethora of pop songs that instantly take you out of the film. Needle drops of AC/DC, a-ha!, The Beastie Boys and even Hotei’s “Battle Without Honor or Humanity” are all so obvious, lazy, and ear-piercingly out-of-place. It’s as if one of the producers found their iPod Nano after it slipped behind a couch cushion fifteen years ago, charged it, hit shuffle, and immediately licensed the first half dozen songs that played for this film. Seriously, Shazam: Fury of the Gods already had an uninspired musical cue for Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out For A Hero” and now we are seeing another one in The Super Mario Bros. Movie not even a month later! Enough!
The Super Mario Bros. Movie ultimately clears the very low bar where most film adaptations of video games spectacularly tumble, but it certainly makes that bar wobble. It’s a boisterous, colorful, and inoffensive crowdpleaser and a backdoor pilot for an inevitable Nintendo cinematic universe that will bring families back out to the theater in droves. But if you go into the film expecting anything more substantial than that, then I’m afraid it’s already game over for you.
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I loved the live version. I am, however, a very uncritical audience. Plus, I’m not into Nintendo, so I’ve no skin in the game.
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