The Super Mario Bros. Movie Review: Great Graphics Hide Uninspired Gameplay
The Super Mario Bros. Movie fixes Hollywood's original sin in the eyes of Nintendo and will be adored by children. But for such a beautifully made product, it's strangely hollow on the inside.
The shadow of the original Super Mario Bros. movie circa 1993 is strong. As one of the first video game movies, the picture had for a brief time the likes of Dustin Hoffman, Tom Hanks, and Arnold Schwarzenegger circling key roles. The stink we now usually associate with “video game movies” was not yet a thing. Of course that stench really began because of Super Mario Bros. and its status as a legendary Hollywood disaster. The scent became so overwhelming, in fact, not to mention humiliating, that Nintendo lowered the gates to their kingdom, refusing to let Hollywood enter again for a full 30 years.
Three decades later though, the gates are up, the drawbridge is down, and Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment have convinced Nintendo to hand them the keys. Which makes it striking that in many ways, The Super Mario Bros. Movie (2023) appears to be a course correction; a redo; a veritable Sliding Doors scenario where the setup is pretty much the same thing: Two Brooklyn-born brothers of unconvincing Italian-American heritage are down on their luck as plumbers until they stumble onto a portal to another dimension hidden beneath the sewers of NYC. Only now that portal is the more familiar green pipe from the games instead of bizarre (but also game-based) inter-dimensional quicksand. More importantly, however, once the Brothers Mario pass through that gateway, they avoid winding up in a garish, allegedly kid-friendly version of Blade Runner. Instead they’re at last in the giddy beauty and vast wonderment of the Mario games. For audiences nine to (probably) 49, it should be overwhelming.
If the notoriously cinema-shy Nintendo was hesitant to ever do this dance again for fear of seeing their prized intellectual property not faithfully adapted, they and millions of fans (particularly children), can rest easy. Super Mario Bros. The Movie is an exhaustingly slavish recreation of elements from the games. Few will likely even notice, either, that it’s by way of a pretty generic and fairly hollow Illumination flick.
To be sure, the thing certainly looks grand after Mario (Chris Pratt) follows Luigi (Charlie Day) down the pipe-shaped rabbit hole. Before that moment, there is some basic backstory revealing the pair are viewed as a couple of mustachioed losers by their family and the neighborhood, and Mario just wants to do something important (meanwhile Luigi just wants to do whatever Mario wants). But once they leave their slice of Kansas behind, Luigi is pretty much sidelined for the whole movie because he lands in the Dark Lands, where he is captured by the Koopa armies of Bower (Jack Black), a tyrannical dragon with an underrated singing voice.
Conversely, Mario lands in the Mushroom Kingdom, which is populated by an endless sea of androgynous children, each named Toad (Keegan-Michael Key voices the most important one), and the humanoid Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy). But make no mistake, this Peach is nobody’s damsel. Before Mario tastes even his first mushroom, the Princess is already a badass jumper, fireball-wielder, and Rainbow Road driver. It’s honestly a bit of a mystery why the princess has need of plumbers at all, especially one as schlubby as Pratt’s Mario. The movie doesn’t seem to really consider that question either. They meet and she agrees immediately to take him with her to the Jungle Kingdom where she will entreat with the father of Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen) to join her forces in a fight against Bowser before the Koopa King invades both of their lands.
This movie is, again, a visually sumptuous transfer of Nintendo iconography to a 70-foot (or so) screen. And it’s all here: mushrooms that turn Mario into a giant? Check. Leaves that inexplicably make him a raccoon with the gift of flight? Double check. That white top hat Bowser wore during select cutscenes of Super Mario Odyssey? Look, the easiest way to sum up an easter egg guide for this sucker is to say that if you can think of it, it’s probably in the movie and it’ll put a smile on your face when it appears (including via two post-credits scenes).
Yet it isn’t just the simple name or visual recognition that works in the film’s favor. For the first time in what seems like nearly a decade, Illumination is really stretching its animation prowess to its fullest. Historically, Illumination films after the early surprise success of Despicable Me have excessively relied on celebrity stunt voice casting and tedious pop culture jokes and songs “for the adults,” which are intended to paper over thin narratives.
One must really give credit where it’s due to The Super Mario Bros. Movie then; the attention to detail (and likely pressure to please the rightsholders of what has grown into a billion-dollar IP) is immense. As a result, parents and children alike will overdose on the sugar rush blast of candy-colored nostalgia on constant display. Peach’s Castle at the top of the Mushroom Kingdom, Bowser’s Flying Fortress, Rainbow Road, even the spooky trees from Luigi’s Mansion are all gorgeously recreated, and each further enhanced by Brian Tyler score, which sprinkles in countless nods to Nintendo games of yore and their beloved themes written by Koji Kondo.
Yet the limit to that AAA effort is it’s still in service to a movie that is shackled by the far more limited imagination of Illumination formula. As far as Twitter gossip is concerned that begins and ends with the stunt casting of Pratt as Mario. And truthfully it is unnecessary, especially when Charles Martinet, who has voiced Mario and Luigi in the games since 1996, makes a vocal cameo that is instantly beguiling. However, Pratt is more than fine as the Italian plumber in a red cap. It’s not a remarkable performance per se, but it fulfills the limited demands set by Illumination’s film.
And what those demands consist of is another American animated film that coasts off audience recognition of IP and fourth-wall breaking gags. It’s been 20 years, nearly to the day, since Quentin Tarantino made HOTEI’s “Battle Without Honor or Humanity” the audible sound of cool in Kill Bill: Vol. 1, and when it appears inside of the first 90 seconds of The Super Mario Bros. Movie, parents will instantly know it’s lost all cultural cachet and relevance. Of course kids, who will be this movie’s best served audience, won’t care, nor should they. Nevertheless, I wonder if ripping off the nearly as old Shrek 2 by sliding in Bonnie Tyler’s “I Need a Hero” for a montage will go as unnoticed by even the youngest viewers.
And that’s really the thing about this movie. As a carefully calibrated stewardship of a game franchise that multiple generations love, the handling is nothing short of a door-to-door white glove service—and a far cry from that American insult in ‘93. As an actual animated movie that needs to stand on its own, however, it’s derivative and barebones. The quiet scenes between Mario and Peach feel particularly strung together with seeming character beats and lines of dialogue that were probably storyboarded missing after the story was condensed during the animation process.
There are exceptions of course, most of them regarding Black inside Bowser’s Castle. In the one instance where the celebrity casting actually adds to the quality of the film, Black’s King Koopa is reimagined as a lovelorn and sensitive soul, prone to tearful power ballads on the piano. One can’t help but wonder how much of that is improvised by Black—just as one might wonder what a Mario Bros. movie might’ve been like if it was made by Pixar or even the newly revitalized DreamWorks Animation that just put out Puss in Boots: The Last Wish.
As it stands, this is a cute family film that children will adore, and many nostalgic adults will drift away on like a magic carpet above a 64-bit flying pirate ship. It’s an adequate product with exquisite craftsmanship. When you open it up though, it’s empty on the inside.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie opens Wednesday, April 5.