“Everyone knows Mario is cool as fuck.”–Phil Jamesson (Philosophy 101 paper)
How does a world-weary millennial approaching middle age with two kids even begin to discuss The Super Mario Bros Movie? By establishing his Nintendo bonafides of course. I won’t bore you with a list, but my first of 11 Mario games (plus another half-dozen Warios and Donkeys Kong) was Super Mario Land for Gameboy – the first portable Mario game ever released, and the one that became my sole obsession from that Christmas to the following June. I spent hundreds of hours playing Super Smash Bros on the Nintendo 64. And I spent a significant portion of AP Calculus in the back of the classroom tapping away on an unauthorized ZShell port of Dr. Mario on the TI-85 graphing calculator. The video game series has sold nearly 400 million copies, and I am so sure that anyone reading this also grew up with these characters that I’m cutting off the nerd solipsism right there. Truthfully, I adore Mario Mario (Chris Pratt), his brother Luigi Mario (Charlie Day), his pals Toad (Keegan-Michael Key) and Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy), his pet Yoshi – whose brief, shelled appearance after the end credits is the closest thing this movie has to a spoiler but I don’t care and neither do you – and of course I love Bowser (Jack Black), as well as the waves of expendable weirdos he sends after me to be smashed and roasted and frozen and knocked aside as Koji Kondo‘s classic themes proclaim in a cheery symphony what an awesome job I’ve done – Brian Tyler allegedly composed an original score for this movie, but he was more of a DJ this time.
The reason why I love these characters is because they’re nothing more or less than they ever needed to be – bog-standard adventuring archetypes to support the world of a then-groundbreaking and still entertaining 2D side-scrolling platformer. And eventual 3D platformer. And eventual open-world game. And eventually other game mechanics. Mario the avatar, Mario the instrument – that Mario has always made sense to me. He was there to be a bright and colorful escape whose appeal was always ultimately in the sense of triumph he handed to whatever child overcame the mechanical difficulty of gameplay, whether it was you, the neighbor kid, an online strategy guide, or a call to a Clippy-like Luigi who ultimately led you to victory. And Shigeru Miyamoto is owed a debt of admiration by children of all ages for his iconic creation that can only be repaid in $60 installments to see what wondrous new game mechanics Nintendo’s skilled developers and hardware engineers have come up with this time.
But Mario the movie? It’s bright and colorful and well-made. Up to the standards of big-budget 2023 animation. Its characters and enemies and vehicles are studiously faithful to their most recent 3D game renditions. And The Super Mario Bros Movie succeeded in its supremely limited ambitions. I mentioned the voice actors above, but with the exceptions of Day and Black, they all essentially disappeared into bland characterizations with motivations and backstories whose simplicity was calibrated precisely for the 4-year-olds who will be seeing it next weekend. Including my own! And I am genuinely looking forward to seeing the delight on the faces of both my kids as they watch their favorite characters come to life on a gargantuan screen. But as an adult, I hoped that the appearance of Pratt heralded the arrival of something more like The Lego Movie, whose shallow, corporate, brand-promotional premise was handed to a pair of bonafide storytelling filmmakers who turned it into something that stands beautifully on its own, rather than a 92-minute unskippable cutscene that you’d watch once, admire for what it is, and then button-mash your way past to get back to the gameplay, the promotion of which is ultimately and transparently the only reason why this movie exists.
The plot: The Mario Bros are plumbers in Brooklyn whose mostly-mustachioed family (including a father voiced by original Mario voice actor Charles Martinet) doesn’t believe in their lofty, unrealistic dream of quitting a plumbing business to open a plumbing business. Then they’re sucked into a portal to the Mushroom Kingdom, and everything I just mentioned ceases to matter at all. Bowser, the Incel King of all Koopas, is invading every level of Super Mario World (including, eventually, the Mushroom one) with a Star power-up, which he will use to impress Princess Peach enough that she’ll overlook his status as a conquering warlord and agree to marry him. Princess Peach, a human from worlds unknown who was raised by Toads in the Mushroom Kingdom, strikes out to get the assistance of the Kong army, and allows the newcomer Mario to join her on this critical mission for the same reason she was elevated to rule the Mushroom Kingdom in the first place: Humans rule in this place, because they’re the ones who can learn the gameplay mechanics and interact with the powerups – rendered here as Mario reluctantly eating fist-sized mushrooms even though – like the four-year-olds he’s speaking to – he thinks he doesn’t like them despite how powerful they make him.
While a few brief action sequences in our world attempt to demonstrate that Mario has some natural aptitude for platform mechanics (by way of construction scaffolds, cars, and other real-world things), these mechanics become literal and unexplained once the Marios enter the Nintendo gameworld. Mario undergoes a sports training montage with Peach, as she teaches him about the powerups, and he leaps and slides his way through a 3D platform environment that just kinda floats over the Mushroom Kingdom. I managed to spend a few seconds pondering how the Mushroom Kingdom’s grasp of biohacking and gravity-defying metamaterials might, in time, make them formidable adversaries for Bowser’s warmongering, but the movie helpfully handwaves all of that away in the same manner as the games: Look, the platforms are only there so Mario has some way of hopping around up there to jump on Bowser. The Toads are just there to look helplessly adorable (one of them even explains this in dialogue), and Bowser is an unstoppable nemesis until you manage to jump on him three times and then he collapses like a neutron star. And in this movie, all of those same things will occur, but a camera will swoop around Mario impressively as he looks a bit frightened that he won’t make it, before he ultimately makes it. Peach kindly explains that not everyone gets it the first time, before strongly implying that she did. And even as we get a glimpse of the subtle evolution that Peach has made over the decades from being the object of gameplay to a sorta-protagonist, this movie contains no shortage of reminders that it has literally nothing to show you that you haven’t already seen in a video game.
There’ll be some driving, of course. The Kongs toodle around on Mario Karts, and the Rainbow Road highway chase was everything that a colorful pursuit through a formless void with shells and banana peels being thrown around can be. And Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen) was certainly a character who appeared in this movie. I’m so tired. I don’t want to dunk on The Super Mario Bros Movie anymore, I really don’t. And it’s not necessary. It’s headed for a $225 million opening weekend. Everyone already knows the emperor has no clothes (preferring to stomp around in a spiky shell), and they’re going to come see the parade anyway. Let it never be said that I can’t appreciate shallow spectacle – I did, after all, put Avatar: The Way of Water into my Top 10 for last year. I appreciate its entertainment value for a demographic I used to be in, and its mere existence won’t stop me from shelling out for the next Mario launch title whenever Nintendo gets around to releasing a new system. Which means that if nothing else, the movie was effective. I just wasn’t one of its desired effects.
FilmWonk rating: 5 out of 10