The Super Mario Bros. Movie Is a Cute, Diverting, Vacuous Brand ExtensionMovies Reviews Super Mario Bros.
The most tastefully restrained thing about The Super Mario Bros. Movie is that it somehow took nearly 30 years to arrive. The signature Nintendo videogame has been around for longer, and some of its characters longer still, but a misbegotten (if interestingly strange) 1993 live-action movie seemed to salt the earth where more Fire Flowers could have grown. Six live-action Batmen, three live-action Spider-Men, and two James Bonds have cycled through movie screens, all in the time it took for Mario and Luigi to find an animated 1UP mushroom.
The time spent on bringing Super Mario Bros. back to the cinema seems less a case of creative perfectionism than careful brand management. The new movie comes from hit factory Illumination, of Sing and Minions fame; it’s not nearly a Pixar-level blue-chip animation studio, but that, too, seems like part of a strategy on Nintendo’s part. (They join Hasbro and Sega in making the jump from toy store shelves to pre-credits cinematic logo card.) Though Illumination has a clear house style, it’s also apparently amenable to being overwritten with Nintendo’s code – which is to say, yes, the worlds of Mario look pretty much as a fan would picture it, translated into shiny computer animation. The colors mostly pop (though there’s sometimes a hint of a peculiar white sheen muting some of them), the character designs are largely adorable (several characters even say so themselves) and nothing looks too eerily, uncannily human.
Even in the movie’s nominally non-fantastical Brooklyn, Mario (Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day) are slightly cartoonier than the family and colleagues who scoff at the idea of two brothers striking out on their own with a plumbing business. (There’s a certain shamelessness in passing off a universally needed service as a pie-in-the-sky dream for scrappy underdog heroes, but shamelessness quickly becomes the name of the game here.) While attending to a plumbing emergency, the brothers are sucked into some kind of pipe vortex and separated in a strange new world. Mario lands in the Mushroom Kingdom, where he meets excitable little mushroom guy Toad (Keegan-Michael Key) and the brave Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy), who frets over an imminent attack from the fearsome turtle-dragon Bowser (Jack Black). Luigi has wound up in Bowser’s territory, so Mario, Toad and Peach set off to rescue him while fortifying their defenses against Bowser.
The initial set-up isn’t all that dissimilar from the 1993 film, which also began with plumbing rivalries, portals beneath Brooklyn, and a delightfully unhinged scene-stealer cast as Bowser. (Jables is following in the footsteps of Dennis Hopper.) But directors Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic quickly make it clear that there will be no funny business in terms of reinterpreting these characters, and only a little bit of funny business in terms of giving them good jokes or memorable quirks. Many of those come courtesy of Black, who dutifully co-wrote the piano love song he warbles, mid-movie, in thrall of Princess Peach. And some of the game-centric sight gags, like a side-scroll shot through a Brooklyn construction site early in the film, are executed with a certain gleeful confidence.
It’s strange, though perhaps not surprising, that Horvath and Jelenic aren’t able to muster more mischievous energy throughout the film. They’re known for the frequently hilarious Cartoon Network TV show Teen Titans Go!, which lampoons the broader DC Comics universe while managing to offer distinct characterizations for its quintet of impulsive young superheroes. Some fans bristle at the show’s irreverence, though, and while Mario Bros. isn’t exactly afraid to be silly – it’s a kid-targeted movie through and through – the movie does feel calculated not to bother anyone (except possibly viewers prone to noticing the dead air in its transitions between scenes). Unlike the free-associative fanboy goofiness of Teen Titans Go!, hardly a reference or an Easter egg comes at this material from an odd or unexpected angle. Even tempest-in-a-teacup quasi-controversies like the casting of decidedly non-meatball Chris Pratt as Mario turn to piffle: The movie makes it hard to care about his vocal performance either way. He sounds OK. What are you expecting, something that would inspire an opinion?
The perverse upside to all of this caution is that this is a less actively annoying movie from Illumination. (This is the “well, Sonic’s teeth do look less terrifying” of Mario.) Some of the studio’s worst trademarks remain; save the funny Bowser original, the filmmakers seem terrified of including any musical cue that hasn’t been time-tested in at least three other movies (and preferably six other trailers). But that pre-existing Mario Bros. aesthetic makes for a richer and more pleasing visual experience; it’s hard to imagine a Despicable Me spinoff approaching the Fury Road Jr. mayhem of the inevitable Mario Kart sequence here. (Honestly, take another cue from that movie and set the whole sequel on Rainbow Road.)
Really, this is a diverting kiddie movie that struggles most visibly when attempting to graft some kind of moral sensibility onto a story that – spoiler alert? – gets resolved by the good guys hitting the bad guys really hard. In one context, The Super Mario Bros. Movie might seem downright reprehensible: It’s a brand extension with only vacuous and insincere things to say, designed to set children in search of dopamine-hit recognition (was that Yoshi?! Will he be in the sequel?!). In the context of having a seven-year-old daughter who grinned through much of the movie and laughed with me at a silly Jack Black tune, it seems mostly harmless. This movie is the symptom, not the disease, and as symptoms go, it’s kind of a cute one. Maybe that’s the ultimate lesson its mediocrity can offer to nostalgic parents: What you used to like was only a few superior design passes away from PAW Patrol.
Director: Aaron Horvath, Michael Jelenic
Writer: Matthew Fogel
Starring: Chris Pratt, Anya Taylor-Joy, Charlie Day, Jack Black, Seth Rogen, Keegan-Michael Key, Fred Armisen
Release Date: April 5, 2023
Jesse Hassenger is associate movies editor at Paste. He also writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including Polygon, Inside Hook, Vulture, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching or listening to, and which terrifying flavor of Mountain Dew he has most recently consumed.