1993’s Super Mario Bros. isn’t the worst video game movie ever made. However, it marked a pivotal moment when critics and audiences alike said, “Maybe video games should just be video games.” Few adaptations proved otherwise until recently. Sonic the Hedgehog has sparked a successful cinematic franchise. On the small screen, Arcane and The Last of Us have reached new frontiers. Now seems as good a time as any for Mario to stage a silver screen comeback. The Super Mario Bros. Movie is a love letter to the fans with enough vibrant visuals and inspired voice work to entertain non-gamers as well. The story may not be on par with the best Mario RPGs, but for a series about an Italian plumber who fights a giant turtle with stars, mushrooms, and Tanooki Suits, it’s amazing that the narrative is coherent.
Taking a page from the 1993 film, Mario (Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day) are originally from Brooklyn before plunging into another dimension. Mario winds up in the Mushroom Kingdom while Luigi finds himself at the mercy of Bowser (Jack Black). For a film called Mario Bros., the two sadly spend much of the movie apart. While it would’ve been nice to see more of Day’s Luigi, the film manages to tie everything back to the theme of brotherhood as Mario sets out to save his sibling. Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy) has spent much of the franchise getting kidnapped, but this incarnation shares more in common with the one seen in the Super Mario Adventures comics from Nintendo Power. She’s sassy, smart, and strong without succumbing to the “Strong Woman” archetype.
Mario and Peach embark across the Mushroom Kingdom along with a faithful Toad (Keegan-Michael Key), who for once doesn’t sound like fingernails on the chalkboard. The voice performances across the board go the extra mile with Black, in particular, escaping into the role. Seth Rogen doesn’t stray far from his usual routine as Donkey Kong, but his voice is surprisingly well-suited for the character. Pratt’s casting became a meme before we even heard him say a word. Yet, he finds a solid balance between Bob Hoskins’ gruff Brooklyn accent and Charles Martinet’s iconic Italian voice. And yes, the OG Mario voice makes a cameo.
Illumination might not be on Pixar’s level in terms of storytelling or heart. However, they know how to create sprawling landscapes beaming with charm and good humor. The studio is an ideal match for the illogical world of Mario where pipes serve as transportation, flowers shoot fire, and roads are made of rainbows. Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic pack every frame with Easter eggs and in-jokes, some easy to catch and others deep cut. Brian Tyler borrows several musical cues from the games, although his original compositions are worthy of comparison to the great Koji Kondo. If only the film didn’t shoehorn in the occasional pop song. Holding Out for a Hero is a catchy tune, but between this and Shazam 2, it doesn’t require further exposure. At least we don’t get a plethora of pop culture references.
At only 92 minutes, The Super Mario Bros. Movie surprisingly feels too short. The film could’ve used an additional ten minutes to flesh out some of the character dynamics. On the whole, though, the movie captures Mario’s brotherly love for Luigi, affection for Peach, rivalry with DK, and determination to thwart Bowser. Besides, we’re sure to see more of these characters in inevitable sequels and spinoffs. As Peach says, “there’s a huge universe out there with a lot of galaxies.” I look forward to seeing them, and who knows? Maybe this will make a great game someday too.