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Tuesday, June 25, 2024

The Super Mario Bros. Movie Review

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It took nearly four decades, one spectacular live-action misfire, and dozens of other failed video game adaptations to learn from, but none of it went to waste: Illumination and Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros. Movie finally gives the most iconic character in gaming the onscreen adventure he’s always deserved. Benefitting immensely from the endless creativity of the innumerable game developers, artists, and musicians who’ve made the Mario franchise a pop culture juggernaut, The Super Mario Bros. Movie rockets along with the momentum of a Bullet Bill exploding out of a cannon. The Mushroom Kingdom is realized with incredible detail and reverence, and not even a Paper Mario-thin plot can keep the magic of the games from being lost along the way.

The Super Mario Bros. Movie’s setup is dead simple: while on a plumbing job underneath Brooklyn, brothers Mario (Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day) are sucked into the Mushroom Kingdom through a warp pipe and become embroiled in King Bowser’s (Jack Black) plans to steal the Super Star, which would give him the power to take over the Toad-filled domain of Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy). Mario’s Cheep-Cheep-out-of-water journey hits all the predictable beats of the “warrior from another world” narrative, but decades of Mario games ensure co-directors Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic (Teen Titans Go!) have an infinite well of wild scenarios and iconography to pull from to stage inventive action moments, especially once Mario’s gotten a handle of how to properly fly with a Tanooki suit.

The Super Mario Bros. Movie: Nintendo Direct Trailer Stills

The Super Mario Bros. Movie almost always has an inventive in-world solution to whatever problem pops up that relies on something easily recognizable from the games, but never withholds explanation of how that thing works (even if the why goes rightfully ignored.) Whether it’s recreating the path of World 1-1 as Mario and Luigi parkour their way through Brooklyn or the pre-emptive giggle fans will get seeing Mario ingest a blue mushroom instead of a red one during a fight, The Super Mario Bros. Movie manages a great balance of accessibility for general audiences and inside jokes for those of us who’ve dipped in and out of the series over the years.

The Super Mario Bros. Movie’s heavy use of references isn’t a good thing in and of itself, but their inclusion feels justified because they are used in ways that feel relevant and organic to the world. At worst, sequences like the Rainbow Road race can feel a bit tacked on when they don’t fully make the case for being there with any kind of logical reason (being able to sell movie-branded Mario Kart toys doesn’t count), but then logic is not a currency anyone’s expecting The Super Mario Bros. Movie to trade in anyway. The movie trusts its audience isn’t going to care much about why platforms float, or why there are blocks with question marks all over the place full of power-ups that turn people into cats and flamethrowers. Once you’ve already bought in to things like that, giving 10 minutes of the movie up to staging a big-budget Mario Kart race so that a trek from A to B feels a little more lively is an easier pill to swallow.

The bombastic score perfectly expresses the grandeur and whimsy of the games’ tracks.


The Super Mario Bros. Movie’s visual vibrance sets a very high bar for the other animated video game adaptations which will surely follow, be that from Nintendo or another studio. Bowser’s fire-versus-ice siege of the Penguin Kingdom, the expansive fungi vistas of the Mushroom Kingdom, and the lush greenery of the Kongs’ Jungle Kingdom are all super-saturated dreamscapes that coalesce into a bustling world begging to be explored further. Brian Tyler’s bombastic score takes care of the musical side of this equation, perfectly expressing the grandeur and whimsy of the games’ tracks at every turn and mining Koji Kondo’s original orchestrations to great effect. The Mario series has some of the most recognizable music cues in gaming history, and Tyler deploys many of them throughout the action just where you hope they’d drop.

The movie’s mostly excellent use of its source material does contrast with some ill-advised blockbuster animation tropes which can occasionally be grating. Kind of like someone stealing a star from you in Mario Party, the fantastic score makes the pop tracks that are shoehorned in feel lazy by comparison. A little “No Sleep ‘Til Brooklyn” as Mario and Luigi parkour their way through the borough never hurt anyone, but by the time Mario and Peach are being karted around the Jungle Kingdom to A-Ha’s “Take On Me,” you may find the needle drops being a little too much of a snap back to reality. That goes double for the writers being unable to resist the urge to have Donkey Kong himself saying “it’s on like Donkey Kong.” Moments like this – as well as the frequent use of slo-mo to highlight jokes – are a bit too cute, and hint at how easily The Super Mario Bros. Movie could’ve slipped into “generic animated movie” territory had it given way to more of these low-hanging stabs at making sure Uncle Jack has his “I understood that reference!” moment, too.

The interminable Discourse surrounding the voice acting in The Super Mario Bros. Movie, as expected, feels totally out of touch with what the cast actually ended up delivering: enthusiastic performances that bring life to the characters, with no real weak link among them. Chris Pratt and Charlie Day’s Mario Bros. are certainly not going to be taking home any commendations from the good people of Brooklyn on their New York accents, but each handily embody their character’s heroism and bravery (hard won though that may be for Luigi). There’s definitely been a flattening of the more cartoonish qualities to the lead characters’ in-game voices – something the movie addresses immediately – but the choice to ground conversations in more a more natural delivery balances well with the fantastical trappings of the Mushroom Kingdom. More than that, it still leaves room for supporting characters like Toad (Keegan-Michael Key), Kamek (Kevin Michael Richardson), and Cranky Kong (Fred Armisen) to be a little kookier and give the ensemble more range. And even though it’s a one-joke character with no impact on the plot, Lumalee’s (Juliet Jelenic, co-director Michael’s daughter) gleeful nihilism lands big laughs every time thanks mostly to the young voice actor’s unerring excitement, which bubbles behind every pitch black observation she makes while locked up with Luigi.

Jack Black’s Bowser feels like the standout vocal performance as the actor’s trademark bombast fits well with the Koopa King’s outsized sense of self. Bowser’s thirst for power isn’t explored in any serious way: he wants to take over the Mushroom Kingdom because he’s a bad guy and that’s what bad guys do – apparently he missed the point of that group session in Wreck-it Ralph. But Black’s Bowser is frightening, impetuous, and desperate for attention at times, and those frequent mood shifts lend his scenes unpredictability. Jables’ Bowser even performs a ballad in Peach’s honor which feels like a safe-for-work Tenacious D b-side, a descriptor I can’t imagine will upset any fans of Black’s musical chops.

The Super Mario Bros. Movie is constantly and joyfully entertaining, and that’s crucial because it lacks any meaningful thematic throughline outside of “we can do anything when we work together!” That lesson feels like an obligated afterthought considering Mario and Luigi spend the majority of this movie separated – not because of any emotional fracture between them early on, but by pure happenstance (warp pipes are crazy!) The brothers mostly agree on everything, and both are quick to enlist the help of allies when the time comes, so the little effort that went into that aspect of the story goes very much amiss. This feels especially frustrating considering the pair of brief flashbacks which give us insights into the characters’ childhoods. Both of these short scenes manage a comparatively touching tone, and hint at better avenues the story could’ve explored to make Mario, Luigi, and Peach feel more fully formed.

Verdict

The Super Mario Bros. Movie is a fireball of animated fantasy. Mario, Luigi, and Peach’s adventure delights with its infectious energy and smart implementations of video game callbacks, and the top-shelf animation renders the Mushroom Kingdom as an Oz-like wonderland that begs to be explored in the inevitable sequels that will follow. The assembled voice cast puts a unique spin on each of their characters, but undercooked emotional arcs don’t get the same attention as the aesthetics, something not helped by a paint-by-numbers plot that bafflingly keeps Mario and Luigi away from each other for half the movie. Illumination and Nintendo set out to deliver a Mario movie that anyone could enjoy, and that anyone with even a passing knowledge of the games could get lost in – they’ve undeniably succeeded on both fronts.

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