REVIEW – “The Super Mario Bros. Movie”: Ode to a Gaming Icon, for Better or Worse

The Super Mario Bros. Movie
(from left) Mario (Chris Pratt), Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy), and Toad (Keegan-Michael Key) in Nintendo and Illumination’s The Super Mario Bros. Movie, directed by Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic. © 2023 Nintendo and Universal Studios

In the span of four decades, Nintendo has affirmed its longevity in the gaming world. A market share first generated in part to the heroic might of an average Joe, his younger brother, and a cavalcade of friends, allies and enemies. And while trends might have changed over time, the core enthusiasm is no less snuffed. Speaking as more a casual observer of the company’s, and their mascots’ evolution than a serious player, I could only show so much enthusiasm for when their greatest hero makes another go at crossing over to cinema. He tried once before, only to have creative meddling implode its vibe. A low bar that’s been fully surpassed if not also open to jump over at the hands of Illumination’s brain trust.

The Super Mario Bros. Movie doesn’t need that long to eliminate the lingering soap taste of 1993’s live action equivalent, with Bob Hoskins unflatteringly decimating the title role. The moment our short-statured Brooklynite (voiced by Chris Pratt) appears on screen with little bro Luigi (Charlie Day) by way of cheesy commercial – complete with 80s rap – all is mostly forgiven. Sight unseen, worlds built within the classic games and beyond find new life in the form of visual eye candy. If only the storyline could’ve been just as invigorating, and not so rushed to move from one level to the next.

The passion in play between directors Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic (Teen Titans Go! To the Movies), and screenwriter Matthew Fogel (The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part) is quite strong. And I’ve no doubt Nintendo chair Shigeru Miyamoto shares in that feeling. This headstrong attitude, while admirable, does lead to a shift in focus away from the quest, and more on a final destination, with only brief, mildly clichéd pit stops to appreciate the utter jaw dropping beauty of the old school NES favorites. Time’s too short in the span of 90+ minutes to build anything beyond an admittedly tidy, barely dense plot.

Mario and Luigi have started their plumbing business with mixed results, and cautious disapproval from their large family. Their curiosity takes them into a subterranean pipe system, and one of them incites a Wizard of Oz type effect where the red-shirted leader lands in the 4K-friendly Mushroom Kingdom. His sibling stumbles his way to the Darklands, the kingdom of evil Koopa king Bowser (Jack Black). He captures Luigi as a leverage play while planning an attack on his peace-abiding counterparts, led by Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy). Through chance encounter, she recruits Mario, teaching him about the rigors of precarious walk lines and carefully placed power-ups before embarking on a quest for reinforcements. Eager mushroom Toad (Keegan Michael-Key) can only move so far; the trio need real muscle in the form of Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen) and his varied army.

A battle waged in the vein of Fury Road or Flash Gordon, albeit still very hurried. And perhaps a little uncertain of what, and what not to establish. It matches the frenzy of an online speed run, leaving minimal consideration for character strengths, and too much on instilling a bright or colorful vibe with a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it chance to absorb it all. Assuredly, all sight gags or Easter eggs pop with resonance. The way certain shots replicate the wide frame of real-time gameplay, for instance, is enough to leave the viewer frozen in awe. And the methods by which composer Brian Tyler (Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers) magically weaves Koji Kondo’s classic themes into his robust, energetic score is brimming with tonal brilliance. So it’s not that Mario doesn’t allow for breaks to cut loose, be spry and allow chaos to reign. They just occur so sparsely that they neither break the flawed momentum Horvath and Jelenic build nor benefit.

The pair try very hard to shatter the standard Illumination playbook; at times they take pride in doing so. However, it’s difficult to escape if any manner of overused story quirks and musical needle drops are an indicator. That draws a frustrating line in the sand whether an idea or element is being taken seriously or subverted from upside down. There may be plenty to chuckle at, many jokes and riffs that may flow over the heads of non-fans, and perhaps some parents revisiting the character after the years, land appropriately. Its keen self-awareness, if any, leaves something to be desired.

The same could be said about character strengths, a considerable afterthought with Fogel’s compressed script. Pratt shouldn’t worry much; his full-throated and refreshingly comical portrayal of the title role is rocksteady. A commanding lead moving the film along with a sharp eye and firm vocal exuberance, regardless of the wavering commitment in his New Yorker accent, almost coming off Bostonian. Taylor-Joy’s Peach often overshadows her co-star’s cocky anxiety with ease, delivering a dry wit and sharp irony in any given syllable. Black finds reawakened elation tapping back into his gruff metal side for Mario’s unsurprisingly musical foe. And Rogen is almost starved of screen time, arriving too fashionably late to leave a loud ripple at the party.

Although it’s perhaps Mr. Day’s Luigi who’s the most short-changed. While giving his all to a misunderstood hero, his accompanying arc winds up underdeveloped and underwritten, with only a brief flashback and the wailing chorus of a dinner scene to justify any manner of depth. A bit unfair, especially when his and Pratt’s shared chemistry leave a wide open door for future franchise exploration. I do hope Team Luigi sees their day in the sun, it just may not be here.

I may not be the most astute judge of how perfect or ideal The Super Mario Bros. Movie was to scratch that itch fans have patiently waited for in a cinematic adaptation. Which sort of fans, I have no clue. Families will be entertained, youngsters especially. Many older fans may be left to wonder, why the rush? Why not take a chance to enjoy the ride, even with a storyline taking numerous shortcuts? And why the hesitancy to dive deeper into game lore or, moreover, take inspiration to fashion a stronger narrative track worthy of staying in continuity? What Forvath and Jelenic create with Nintendo’s observant support is still a faithful love letter to an iconic franchise, its mascot forever having stood the test of time and then some. And in a big-screen setting, it’s a fresh arena for the guy to run amok in, and welcome new fans into the fold. It’s a fun enough romp for the thrills, a trek I’d play again. It’s merely a safe bet the games had far more substance behind them. (B-; 3.5/5)

The Super Mario Bros. Movie opens in wide release April 5, with a warning to stay through to the very end for a final surprise; rated PG for action and mild violence; 92 minutes.