The Super Mario Bros. are back on the big screen with a power-up in visuals, but a tiny mushroom when it comes to comedy and story.
It’s fitting that The Super Mario Bros. Movie opens with a commercial. Scratch that, it technically opens with one of its best scenes, a prologue in which the tyrannical Bowser (voiced impeccably by Jack Black) wreaks havoc on a fearless, but helpless kingdom ruled by penguins. A set-up this amusing could only really by done by both Nintendo and Illumination, mixing Shigeru Miyamoto’s practically endless, imaginative video game mythology with Illumination’s vibrant, immersive pencil. But Nintendo and Illumination as a duo are less like Mario and Luigi and more like Mario and his accountant.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie wants you to forget all about that 1993 live-action movie and of course the oft-forgotten animated film Japan released in the mid-80s. But they certainly do want you to remember just about every single Mario video game that has come out since 1981, save for the ones they’re planning to capitalize off of in a sequel or three. It really is closer to Mario Party and Super Smash Bros., in which multitudes of characters fall down the pipeline, practically in every scene.
That said, the movie does go through the basics when it comes to the premise. It’s the standard “Mario and Luigi have to save the Mushroom Kingdom!” idea from the baseline games, though with a few twists along the way. The first being that Mario is, inexplicably, voiced by Chris Pratt, in a vocal performance that loses all meaning when the film lampshades his Italian accent as a cheap gimmick in one of the first scenes.
“I’ll do anything for my brother.”
More relevant to the story, Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy) is far from a damsel-in-distress. In one of many script touches that reminds of Shrek, she’s actually the competent one in the group who trains Mario and reluctantly agrees to let him join her on the quest to stop Bowser from taking over her kingdom. Bowser, who by the way gets his own hammy scenes as a hopeless romantic stalker who loves to play piano and wants nothing more than to marry Princess Peach, even if he has to burn the world down to convince her. The film is quite short on sharp comedy when he’s not onscreen.
Then there’s Luigi (voiced by Charlie Day), the supposed secret weapon of the movie who rarely gets utilized. If anything the damsel-in-distress trope has been shifted to his shoulders, as he spends the majority of the movie doing nothing but mugging in captivity at a sociopathic star creature named Luma, who’s Bowser’s only true rival when it comes to earning decent laughs. Mario has far more banter and camaraderie here with Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen) and Toad (Keegan-Michael Key), who along with Peach help him navigate various trials and tribulations like a Mario Kart simulator and some underwater shenanigans.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie hits its stride when mirroring the action and controlled chaos of the core games. A few key scenes devote time to replicating what’s fun about playing as Mario, even if you’re bad at first. The camera shifts to the side and everything starts moving so quickly, you can almost picture yourself with a controller in hand. It’s quite effective and helped by the fact that these actual worlds and characters look incredible and are probably jaw-dropping to young audiences seeing much of these flourishes and worlds for the first time.
The bottom line.
For older fans, the nostalgia overload can be tiresome, if only because most of it is just there to remind you of things that already exist. Original ideas and innovative concepts with the intent to evoke feeling? Not much of that to be found here. The other side of the pipe is just a series of marketing angles and integrated product placement stitched together to resemble a narrative. Like we have to patiently sit through the cut scenes, not appreciate them. Perhaps it is a faithful video game adaptation in that way.
Mario wants to be taken seriously, we’re told. He wants to save his brother. Wait, he doesn’t want to fail and bring his brother down with him. He doesn’t quit, though. Actually, he thinks fast on his feet. What, no, he doesn’t think fast on his feet. Now he does again. His personality and character motivations change as often as his outfits in this movie. Like a different writer penned each scene with a totally separate set of priorities.
The good news is that expectations might not be so super, anyway. This franchise has a low bar to hit, after all, in its odyssey to secure massive box office and spark the next major film franchise. Here’s hoping they lower the difficulty level next time.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie opens in theaters starting April 5 in the U.S. and April 28 in Japan. Watch the trailer here.
Images courtesy of Universal Pictures and Illumination
THE SUPER MARIO BROS. MOVIE - 6/10