The highly anticipated animated video game based adventure The Super Mario Bros. Movie is a disaster. It’s not necessarily worse than the much reviled live action adaptation of the same beloved Nintendo property from the 90s, but The Super Mario Bros. Movie certainly doesn’t do much to improve on the sewer-low bar set for it. With only a few small bright spots peppered throughout to keep this thing from being a total wash, The Super Mario Bros. Movie is lowest common denominator filmmaking aimed at people who deserve so much more than this. Outside of the youngest of children can who only process noise and colour while watching a movie and fans so feverish for an animated Mario and Luigi adventure that they’ll laugh hysterically at mere references that don’t have any actual jokes attached to them, The Super Mario Bros. Movie is made for no other reason than to print money.
I know that sounds harsh, but The Super Mario Bros. Movie earns such a treatment despite being an animated lark. I can already feel people chomping at the bit to cut me off by saying, “Oh, why can’t you have any fun,” or “But this is for kids,” or “You must not be a fan. This is for the fans!” Well, I do like fun, and this has none of that. I feel deeply sorry for people who have kids because right now there are so few options at the theatre right now, and they’ll probably be forced into seeing this by default. And I am actually a fan. I grew up on the Mario games, and still play them to this day. So when I am being harsh, it’s not because I am getting any enjoyment out of taking down a corporate cash cow so many are looking forward to. I’m doing it because it’s a terrible movie made with cynical intentions.
Queens, New York based plumbers and brothers Mario (voice by Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day) are doing everything they can to keep their struggling business afloat. When a massive water main bursts in Brooklyn, the brothers take it upon themselves to try and save the day. While underground, they’re sucked through a magical portal of some sort that drops them off in two different locations. Mario is whisked away to the colourful Mushroom Kingdom, where friendly little toadstools romp and play, and everything is overseen by the benevolent (and possibly human) Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy). Luigi, on the other hand, finds himself in a dark and spooky land run by the evil, spiky, fire breathing Bowser (Jack Black), King of the Koopas. Bowser has been amassing an army to take over the Mushroom Kingdom because he wants to marry Princess Peach. If she yields, he gets everything he ever wanted. If she turns him down, he’ll destroy the Mushroom Kingdom with the help of a recently acquired “Super Star.” It’s up to Mario and Peach and some of their closest allies to rescue Luigi and stop Bowser’s plans for domination.
You know a movie is in trouble when the first two scenes were shown in almost their entirety during pre-release trailers. From there, The Super Mario Bros. Movie struggles to come up with a story that can integrate the gameplay elements that made the Nintendo series a string of classics with a narrative and characters that make any sense. Directors Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic (who previously collaborated on the much more delightful Teen Titans GO! To the Movies) and writer Matthew Fogel (Minions: The Rise of Gru, The LEGO Movie 2) are completely lost at sea with this material. So focused is this film with spectacular, large scale moving parts and set pieces – all of which need lengthy, but still ineffective explanations for anyone who might be uninitiated – that character, story, and performance become an afterthought. The Super Mario Bros. Movie is as shallow as an 85 minute infomercial for Nintendo products.
The characters are as basic as they were in the game, which could be more excusable if the story, adventure, and humour were on point. The story and characters won’t make sense to anyone who hasn’t played the game religiously over the years, so that curiously knocks out a huge chunk of the kiddie audience this is so obviously aimed at, unless the point is to confuse them to a point where parents will have to buy them a Switch or dust off the old NES that’s in the basement. Those familiar with the games will have to question why some things are explained in this world (power ups, warp pipes), but others you just have to know or find out for yourself.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie moves so fast through numerous short scenes, and yet the lack of any real substance manages to make a sub-90 minute running time feel like an eighteen hour shift on an assembly line. There’s so little reason to care about the quest, and the filmmakers are so focused on nailing the visual aesthetics and cramming in references that the adventure falls flat. Some of the action sequences are cool to watch in a passive way, with a chase down Mario Kart’s famed Rainbow Road being a memorable doozy to look at, but they’re in service of nothing.
The only thing worse than the mindless action are the film’s attempts at humour, which mostly consists of making a reference or visual nod to anything revolving around the game or other Nintendo properties and just letting it sit there for people to acknowledge it. A reference isn’t a joke unless someone actually includes a punchline, and like so many other cynically minded blockbusters these days, The Super Mario Bros. Movie doesn’t know the difference between the two. The only genuinely funny thing in the film is a cute looking blue flame named Lumaleee (voiced by Juliet Jelnic), a prisoner in Bowser’s dungeon who cheerfully looks forward to the sweet embrace of death. When I glanced over at the watch of someone sitting next to me during the film and saw there were still somehow 40 minutes left, I knew Lumaleee was my favourite character.
The actors behind the characters are almost miscast across the board, with the exceptions of Day, who’s quite charming, and Black, who’s relishing the chance to play a doofus villain instead of a misguided hero for a change (good call giving Bowser a torch song ballad). It would be wrong to call out any specific performer for a bad performance (although, I really want to know what they did to Keegan Michael-Key’s voice in post-production) because this seems like a case where they were chosen for name recognition and not because they were the right people for the job. The more big names one has on a poster, the more crossover appeal it has with adults, and for the performers, they do what they’re asked, record lines for a couple of weeks, and they’re done quicker than they would be for a normal movie. The line readings and voices are so awkward and performances so flat that I’m guessing none of these people had to audition for their parts. They simply had value and were available. There’s no way any real thought went into the casting of The Super Mario Bros. Movie, and that’s the fault of the producers, not the voices.
But the character design is well done, and The Super Mario Bros. Movie leaves enough open threads for sequels, meaning it probably pleased studio and Nintendo officials on a superficial level. And superficially is the only way this thing can be watched because outside of the animation, there are no elements of a good movie to be found here. Say what one might about the live action Super Mario Bros. from back in the day. At least that failed because it tried to break tradition and ended up making a much more endearingly and original kind of bad movie. Similarly, the almost equally bad film from last week about the making of Tetris (with which this shares a similarly stupid needle drop of “Holding Out for a Hero”) at least knew that it couldn’t actually adapt the game and settled on a mess of its own convoluted design. Or take the recently released Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves as a good example of how to do something like this properly. That’s an IP based romp based on a beloved property that has good characters, a nifty story, visual splendour, and elements that can entertain hardcore fans and the uninitiated equally.
So who was The Super Mario Bros. Movie made for? The execs that produced it that are going to spend their profits on new vacation properties.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie opens in theatres everywhere on Wednesday, April 5, 2023.
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