Cinema Dispatch: The Super Mario Bros. Movie

The Super Mario Bros. Movie and all the images you see in this review are owned by Universal Pictures

Directed by Aaron Horvath & Michael Jelenic

I’m not sure how clear I’ve been about this in the past, but this is kind of a big deal for me because I’ve been a Mario fan for as long as I’ve known that video games existed.  To this day I lean towards Nintendo consoles, and while I haven’t finished Odyssey quite yet, I’ve at least finished all the primary 3D console games of which this adaptation is taking a lot of its inspiration.  Needless to say that I will have far more thoughts on this than I should have, and in order to express them all I’m going back to my classic overlong format just in case you were all getting far too used to my newer snappier style.  Given the decades of hype and speculation around the idea of a proper Mario movie, is there any hope of Illumination rising to the challenge and delivering the best video game movie ever made, or do we need to lower our expectations to something a little more reasonable given the studio’s particular brand of middle-of-the-road family entertainment?  Let’s find out!!

Mario and Luigi (Chris Pratt and Charlie Day) are two Brooklyn plumbers who have just started their own business and are ready to make it big!  Sadly the duo doesn’t have much luck as shenanigans abound, and a flood in the city leads them to some magical green pipes that transport them to the fantastical Mushroom Kingdom.  Well, at least Mario gets sent there while Luigi gets sent to The Dark Lands and winds up as a prisoner of King Bowser (Jack Black) who is the big bad around here and is looking to take over the kingdom by dethroning Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy).  With Mario looking to save his brother and Peach needing some muscle for her upcoming war with Bowser, the two strike a bargain to help each other as they head to the Jungle Kingdom to enlist the help of the Kongs.  Will Peach and Mario be able to save the kingdom and Luigi from Bowser’s terrifying machinations?  Can Mario learn the ins and outs of this world and become its greatest champion like John Carter and Flash Gordon before him?  What’s really driving this Koopa tyrant in his quest to take over the world, and does he sing a song about it? 

How appropriate would it be to reference a Tenacious D song here?  Yes, that one.

I don’t know what I expected, but it’s hard to get mad at something like this.  Disappointed is in the ballpark of what I’m feeling, but not for the reasons that previous game to movie adaptations have been; even ones I’ve liked such as the recent Sonic the Hedgehog movies.  It’s competent in almost every respect with great animation, solid jokes, and a plot that moves along at a solid clip, so there’s really no reason to not love this movie if you’re in Illumination’s target demographic which I suppose is the key to all of this.  For someone who isn’t a guy in his thirties and has waited most of that time for a good Mario movie (technically we’ve already had one, but more on that later), this is undoubtedly going to be somewhat underwhelming.  I say that not because it’s a Kid’s Movie as we’ve had plenty of great ones in recent years, but because it’s Illumination’s particular brand of Kid’s Movie.  This isn’t an Into the Spider-Verse masterpiece or even a genuinely heartfelt passion project like Blue Sky Studios’ The Peanuts Movie which is disappointing for someone like me, but it checks the boxes it needs to and is definitely appealing to its target audience which may not be you or I at this point in our lives.

“Oh, the fans are disappointed?  I guess we’ll just have to console ourselves with all this MONEY!!”     “WA-HOO!!”

We’ll start with what’s great about this movie as I don’t want to sound like an overly bitter fanboy about this.  Trust me, there are enough of those online and I have no interest in joining whatever outrage is out there for this.  The animation is on point and Illumination manages to stage some very creative moments that make the most of the medium; all of which is accompanied by a wonderful score that uses the familiar songs from the games and gives them the big-budget reimaging that they deserve.  Still, there are some less-than-stellar parts of the overall aesthetic with the needle-drop soundtrack being particularly on the nose, but the bigger issue is that there is something a little bit disconcerting about the new art style if you’re used to the particulars of how Mario and company look.  I’m no expert, but there’s something about the limbs that feel a bit off and I think that Peach’s face is a bit overly expressive compared to everyone else which calls attention to the minor differences and flaws that the human characters have, but everything else looks as it should with Bowser looking better here than he has in any of the games.  Where the animation truly shines is in the environments as the movie never lacks moments of awe as the familiar visuals of the Mushroom Kingdom are given new life through the use of cinematic language.  The scale of certain creatures comes through much better with low-angle shots, the more spooky-themed enemies like Dry Bones and Shy Guys have added menace to them, and while the geography of things is a little suspect as I’m sure Rainbow Road is supposed to be in outer space, it’s nonetheless enjoyable for older fans like me to see them realized in the movie.

“What, the Bullet Bills AGAIN!?  Darn you, Rubber-Banding!!”

Unfortunately, it’s the narrative that starts to bring things down, which is what I’ve been worried about ever since Illumination got the license.  Outside of the occasionally interesting venture like Sing, the studio has middle-of-the-road animated Pablum down pat, and while the Mushroom Kingdom does give them a lot of cool concepts and visuals to work with, the main problem here is a lack of ambition.  What exactly does Illumination bring to the table here that isn’t taken whole cloth from the game?  There’s certainly a structure here that hasn’t been present as the games have never had strong or consistent narrative so I’ll give them points for that, and I’m glad that we’re somewhat canonizing the Brooklyn origin for the characters which has always felt like the best backstory if you really needed one.  Sadly, this entire framework is for its own sake as there’s just no meat to the bones here; especially in the Brooklyn scenes which was what I was looking forward to the most.  There are some amusing moments here and there, but the screws are just too tight on this movie as there’s no room for anything that isn’t action, gags, or spectacle which leaves the movie feeling overly hollow.  Ten extra minutes, maybe even just five, to focus on smaller character moments would have brought this up significantly and there’s just no reason why certain scenes fly by as fast as they do or how simplistically a lot of the character arcs are resolved.  The sole exception here once again is Bowser who is fantastic in every scene he’s in, and Jack Black adds quite a bit of nuance to a performance that otherwise could have been as simple as everything else in here, plus his song Peaches is a banger and the definite highlight of this whole thing.  Still, there are just too many missed opportunities with the characters, particularly when it comes to Luigi, who they seem to be setting up for a self-reliance arc that never gets off the ground as he’s left without much to do.  All that energy gets put towards Peach and I actually like what they do with her here by focusing on her responsibility as ruler, but while I understand that Peach being a Damsel in Distress is one of the sticking points of the game franchise and is obviously something they wouldn’t want to do in the movie, recreating that trope with Luigi hardly seems like an ideal solution.

“Not my perfect mustache!  It’s my one defining feature!”

So what does that mean for the older fans?  For those of us who have stuck with this franchise from NES to Switch; what do we make of this movie?  As I said, I’m a little disappointed that this wasn’t better, but I’ve long gotten over any idea of fan ownership of a franchise, so if the kids enjoy it then let them have it.  I certainly enjoyed it for what it was, and the thing is that for those of us who are a little too old for this particular Mario movie, there is something out there that might just be worth checking out if you haven’t seen it in a while.  As much flack as that live-action Mario Bros movie from 1993 has gotten, it’s actually kind of amazing!  Bob Hoskins gives a stellar performance as the grumpy older brother, John Leguizamo gives it his all in a performance that could have been grating in lesser hands, and the filmmakers had a rather ingenious vision for turning the basic building blocks of the young game franchise into a scathing critique of capitalistic excess!  Look, we’ve got the slick and by-the-numbers version that faithfully recreates the aesthetic and tone of the games, so perhaps it’s time for everyone else to catch up with me and agree that, for all of the movie’s flaws, it’s a unique take on the material and probably plays best to an older audience.

No, they didn’t reveal that their names are Mario Mario and Luigi Mario in this. Yes, I’m as heartbroken as you are.

If we’re being honest, this is probably the only movie we could have expected to come from Nintendo.  We’re long past the days when the company missteps as hard as they did on stuff like The Virtual Boy, the Philips CDi, and arguably even the original Mario movie (if nothing else, it wasn’t a box office hit), and without that possibility of something going horrifically wrong, there wasn’t the possibility for it to go astoundingly right.  Say what you will about SEGA and the Sonic franchise, they take some very strange chances which is what gave us the excellent Sonic Frontiers and at least half of the second Sonic movie, but it’s also responsible for nonsense like Sonic 06 and the other half of the second Sonic movie.  This movie’s overwhelming success will surely lead to a sequel and perhaps even more Nintendo licenses getting the big screen treatment so there’s still hope that we’ll eventually get something more interesting and with more ideas to chew on, but for now, we’ve got a perfectly adequate movie from a perfectly adequate studio that’s worth checking out if your any sort of fan, but perhaps it’s worth remembering that this is first and foremost for kids which most of us who were looking forward to this are not.  Enjoy it for what it is and be glad that it’ll be someone’s favorite movie even if it’s not yours.

3 out of 5

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