Starring in over 200 video games over his 40-plus year tenure, Mario has been synonymous with video games for generations. The short-statured, red-overall wearing, Italian plumber who resides in the Mushroom Kingdom has smashed, karted, odyssey-ed, and “Wahoo”-ed his way onto our screens and into the hearts of gamers all around the world. However, Mario’s journey to the silver screen hasn’t always been smooth sailing, with the 1993 live-action adaptation (in which the term ‘adaptation’ is being used incredibly loosely here) being critically panned and not delivering at the box office, infamously becoming one of the worst video-game to film adaptations of all time.
It’s no surprise that Nintendo let some time pass (30 years to be exact) to find the right place for their beloved and cherished character, alongside the plethora of plumbers, princesses, and creatures within the Super Mario world, to be re-introduced to the movie watching masses. And with the recent successes of animation juggernaut Illumination (the minds behind the Minions and Despicable Me franchises), it made sense that the next feature film adaptation share the similar animated format of the video games themselves.
What is served up this time around by the team at Illumination and Nintendo, is a fast paced 90 minutes of colourful, action-packed, humorous and Easter-egg-filled-to-the-max movie that even with some minor changes to characters, feels like a movie made by life-long fans of Mario, but also an accessible way for a new, younger audience to be introduced to the magical worlds, kingdoms and characters that this franchise has to offer. However, despite its energetically fun tone, there is still a fair bit to be desired with the story that is told, as it sticks so closely to a safe ‘hero’s journey’ formula, that audiences may walk away from The Super Mario Bros. Movie visually dazzled, but entertainingly underwhelmed.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie begins with Boswer (Jack Black) and his fiery, floating castle as he rampages through kingdom’s in the search of total domination and dominion, with his eyes set on the next target, the Mushroom Kingdom – a wonder-filled place inhabited by the Mushroom creatures and led by orphaned human, Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy). Meanwhile, in Brooklyn, two Italian-American plumbers and brothers, Mario (Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day) dream of having their own successful plumbing business, despite the ridicule and criticism from their family.
When a water main bursts in downtown Brooklyn, so big it is being covered by the news, Mario sees this as his opportunity to prove to his family and his city that he is the plumber he dreams of being and heads towards the disaster with brother Luigi to fix the problem. However, their attempts at showing off their plumbing prowess is interrupted when Mario and Luigi discover a bright green pipe under the city, unlike any of the manky, gross sewage pipes they’ve seen before. A pipe that once they enter, transports them to this magical universe, full of rainbow gateways to hundreds of different kingdoms. It is here that the brothers become separated, with Luigi falling into Bowser’s scary, dark kingdom, and Mario arriving in the Mushroom Kingdom, where he teams up with Princess Peach to find Luigi.
Obviously, the major changes that audiences will pick up on in that synopsis, but also as they watch the film, is that Mario and Luigi are humans from Brooklyn (not the Mushroom Kingdom like in the games), and that Princess Peach is not the stereotypical “damsel in distress” that pop-culture normally shoe horns her as. While this may ruffle the feathers of Mario-purists, the changes made for this film (and the obvious continuation of the franchise past this film) sets up a larger story full of potential to travel different worlds with a new sense of discovery, but also adds more substance (especially to Princess Peach) in this film. Peach is, plain and simple, a bad-ass in this film, often stealing action set-piece scenes with excitement and solidifying her foundation as an awesome character for young girls to look up to as they watch this film.
The first thing that sticks out as a strength in The Super Mario Bros. Movie is the animation. This is by far the best animation that has ever been created by Illumination Studios. A shot early on in the film, in which the visible difference in texture between Bowser’s skin and his shell is distinctly shown, is just the beginning of a film that is so visually stunning, that it completely enhances the immersion into the magical world. The eye-popping colours, mixed with the unabashed commitment to these utterly unique and lively cartoon worlds, makes this film not just fun because of its adventurous feel, but the complete engagement by its visual awe. By far, this is the best Mario and his cavalcade of cartoon friends has ever looked, and it absolutely should be celebrated as a ground-breaking achievement in animation.
Adding to the visual excitement are some incredibly fun, adventurous and thrilling action set-pieces. The Super Mario Bros. Movie is surprisingly action packed, whether its an exciting, platform-based training montage with Peach and Mario, or the unbelievably jaw-dropping kart chase that features one of everyone’s favourite (or most hated) Mario Kart tracks in a new spin on the beloved game, or a humours, yet somewhat brutal fight between Mario and Donkey Kong! There is a lot of action on screen, and each scene feels energetic and alive, while pushing the story along at a breakneck pace.
Composer Brian Tyler has done an outstanding job with the score for this film. Taking the iconic Mario theme created by Koji Kondo, Tyler works in stings and cues from the array of video games that have featured Mario, and turned them into this bellowing, orchestral score that acts as it’s on character in the film. Every time the score played through the cinema speakers, it was noticeable in a good way. The level of nostalgia that some of those notes bring are in service to the way Tyler has integrated them into scenes, and enhances the action, comedy or tension every time it plays.
While there was controversy surrounding the casting of Chris Pratt as Mario, predominantly fuelled by worries that an impersonation of the unabashedly Italian character might come across as insensitive and stereotypical, Pratt is actually a standout in the film, with his vocal performance and the direction the character of Mario is taken in the film, working hand in hand with each other. The true standout, however, is Jack Black who is having the time of his life as Bowser, and actually commits to a strong performance that not only disguises Black’s own distinct voice a fair bit, but also adds a menacing layer to Bowser that makes him a threatening force to reckon with.
Keegan-Michael Key’s manic energy as Toad creates so many hilarious moments for his character. Anya Taylor-Joy balances the prim and properness of a Princess with the femme-fatale tendencies of her action-hero nature, and Seth Rogen matches Donkey Kong so well, unique laugh and all.
Where The Super Mario Bros. Movie falters slightly, is that it’s an incredibly predictable and ‘safe’ story. Every scene, moment and character did exactly what was predicted and anticipated throughout the entire film. It makes sense that the filmmakers and Nintendo chose to take the simple route with re-introducing Mario to the world. They’ve created a movie that is easy to follow for the younger audience that it is targeting, but at the same time, feels quite unremarkable. There isn’t a lot of substance with the characters to grab onto as the focus narrows in on a team joining together to defeat a bad guy… just because he’s bad. The themes of bravery and finding the hero within yourself at the foundation of the film are nice for the audience the film caters to, but the characters are just a little too surface level for it to feel overly moving or emotionally engaging. It definitely helps that this is a fast-paced, colourful and exciting movie, because if it wasn’t, The Super Mario Bros. Movie would’ve fallen incredibly flat by being uninteresting.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie is incredibly fun and adventurous, with superbly animated action scenes that will have audiences of all ages engaged with those moments. While the movie definitely sacrifices story for entertainment, it’s still a fast paced ride that is filled to the brim with significant nods to the 40 years that Mario and his world have been in the lives of us all.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie is in cinemas April 5, courtest of Universal Pictures.
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