This Super Mario Bros. Movie article contains spoilers.
When the cast for Illumination and Universal Pictures’ The Super Mario Bros. Movie was first announced in 2021, there was only one thing anyone could talk about: actor Chris Pratt replacing beloved veteran Charles Martinet as the voice of the Italian plumber. Martinet, a voice acting legend who has played the character in one form or another since 1991, would have to step aside for one of the biggest stars of the moment, a Marvel Cinematic Universe favorite no less. But also a performer with very little actual voice acting experience, certainly much less than his predecessor.
It hardly seemed fair when Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto introduced the movie’s cast in the infamous Nintendo Direct of Sept. 2021. To fans who grew up with the character on Nintendo consoles, Martinet’s oft-quoted and imitated voice acting had become as pivotal to Super Mario as his blue overalls. Why did Nintendo even need to recast the role for an animated movie when the role demanded a talented voice actor to begin with?
The more cynical side of the fandom would point out that attaching the name of a big movie star to your film is a sure way to guarantee butts in seats on opening night. But let’s not kid ourselves here: we’re talking about one of the most popular and financially successful franchises in the biggest entertainment medium on the planet. You hardly have to sell a Mario animated movie to kids or nostalgic 30- and 40-somethings who want easter eggs and callbacks to their childhood. No, most Gen Zers and the generation of younger kids that follow them don’t know what you’re talking about when you mention that 1993 live-action movie. They don’t know Mario bombed on the big screen once before nor do they care. The young target audience of this family movie is entering the Mario film franchise without the trauma of their parents. In 2023, you don’t really need Pratt’s name to sell “Nintendo References The Movie” to audiences.
Martinet has been a constant presence for every generation of Mario fan, from 1994’s Mario Teaches Typing all the way to every single Mario game released on the Nintendo Switch since 2017. No matter your age, you know Martinet’s voice. And Nintendo and Universal Pictures have done him a disservice. Regardless of what you think of Pratt’s performance in the new movie, Martinet deserved better.
The studios did come up with a way to include Martinet in the film in not one but two cameo appearances. One could see this as an honor, but his brief scenes mostly seem to exist for their inherent easter egg appeal rather than to actually celebrate the actor’s considerable legacy.
We first hear Martinet’s iconic (and highly exaggerated) Italian accent early in the film, while Mario and Luigi are watching their plumbing service commercial at the Punch-Out Pizzeria. In the ad, Mario and Luigi put on a cartoonish accent reminiscent of the video game character, presumably to entice customers because apparently that’s what Brooklynites with plumbing issues want. When the commercial’s over, Mario asks Luigi if he thinks the accents are too much. That’s when another guy in overalls and a hat suddenly turns from the corner arcade cabinet he’s playing on and reassures the Mario Bros. in a pitch-perfect Mario voice that the accent is “Perfect! Wahoo!” This is Martinet as a character named Giuseppe, which may be a nod to a third plumber character Nintendo fans made up as a joke. Giuseppe even does a little Mario jump and everything before being ushered off screen until late in the movie when he pops again for an encore. Also, the cabinet he’s playing is a game called “Jumpman,” which is a reference to one of Nintendo’s names for the character back in the early ’80s before they finally settled on Mario.
Martinet’s slightly meatier second role in the movie is as Mario and Luigi’s dad. This time, Martinet sheds the classic Mario accent for something closer to Pratt and Charlie Day’s performances as two regular guys from Brooklyn. In a bit of a meta narrative, part of Pratt’s whole motivation for saving the Mushroom Kingdom from Bowser is to make his dad proud. He eventually does earn Papa Mario’s approval when Bowser comes crashing through Brooklyn for the movie’s climactic battle and the plumbers save the day. Papa Mario hugging his sons at the end of the movie will melt a few hearts for sure, but the moment ultimately falls flat when you remember what could have been.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie is out in theaters now.