The Super Mario Bros. Movie (2023)

Mamma mediocre

Every one of my complaints about The Super Mario Bros. Movie can be countered with “Well, it’s the Mario movie as made by Illumination. Were you expecting something else?” And, to be honest, yes, I actually was. The trailers were very promising, and I figured Nintendo would be so involved with quality control that the story might be a bit richer than Minions and Zootopia Idol. The original Super Mario Bros. movie was such a brand-damaging catastrophe that Nintendo avoided Hollywood for 30 years; I figured they’d settle for nothing less than a perfect, glory-days-Pixar-esque blend of joy and heart for their grand return.

Alas, it isn’t that. It’s fun of course. But it’s a film totally lacking in cinematic substance. You can barely call this 90-minute thing a movie. It’s all goofy catch phrases and wacky chase scenes. No character, no story, and absolutely no heart.

But credit where credit is due: The Super Mario Bros. Movie is a masterpiece of branding and merchandising. This will sell a ridiculous number of tickets at the box office. People will buy Nintendo Switches because of this movie. It really is built around the essence of the Mario video games, and it makes for intoxicating sugar-high movie. It is successful in its mission to be the most Mario movie it could possibly be. That just isn’t the same thing as being a good movie.

For twenty minutes, the film pretends that it has a story: We meet Mario (Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day) as real-world plumbers trying and failing to start their own company. Their friends and family scoff at their dreams in a way that could have been a funny juxtaposition: scorn aimed at a down-to-earth business model where in most movies the “following the dream” would be something impractical like becoming a singer. But Illumination just zips past the irony onto the next set piece without teasing that out.

Mario and Luigi decide to prove themselves by saving all of Brooklyn when a giant water main breaks. Except they get sucked into the pipe instead of fixing it. They end up in Mushroom Kingdom, where Luigi is promptly captured by Bowser (Jack Black). Mario teams up with girl-power Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy) to save Luigi and the kingdom. All plumbing melodrama forgotten.

From this moment on, there really is no narrative here beyond “Bowser is the villain; he has kidnapped Luigi and he wants to marry Peach so we must defeat him.” That’s fine for the target demographics (in this case, kids and Nintendo fanboys), as it allows for highly concentrated Mario action, with one comic chase scene and action scene after another. That’s why we’re here, right? Illumination’s animation chops have never been better. The movie always looks colorful and exciting. (I reckon Minions 2 has a few more clever uses of the medium with its ‘70s textures, but this one looks much better overall.)

And boy does Illumination nail the Mario flavor: There are hundreds of little details that will make you think of the video games. Several scenes are devoted to “platforming” sequences that fit naturally into the film. An early scene shot in fake-2D simulates the NES-era gameplay — probably the cleverest visual scene in the movie. A later training montage recreates a bunch of the hazards of Super Mario World, the training equipment’s boxiness emulating a 16-bit pixelated look.

But even outside of the centerpiece action scenes, the visuals are polished and filled with details. This is the movie’s biggest selling point: If you love Nintendo, there’s always a lot to look at. A million different characters and images that have appeared in the games. Familiar settings and iconography. Mario-heads will be basking.

If that’s true in the visuals, it’s doubly true of the sound. The film’s score and sound design are exemplary: It’s drowning in sound cues from the game, and the score pulls in a dozen of the familiar themes throughout the game franchise’s history and weaves them together into a competent high-energy film score. It’s a terrific, nostalgia-tickling arrangement. On the negative side, it has a bunch of lazy needle drops; far more than I would have expected from a video game movie, verging into late-era Zemeckis territory with their obviousness.

There’s also a gusto with plot ideas I admire: The film could have simply been the “Bowser vs. Mario” movie and had more than enough content. But it’s also a “Mario Kart” movie and a “Donkey Kong vs. Mario” movie and even a little bit of a “Luigi’s Mansion” movie. And while all of those are not 100% compatible — the film tosses up its hands trying to explain why they’re all happening at once — it still makes for a thrilling pace of scenes and story beats. Every studio wants a cinematic universe these days; it must have been tempting to plot every one of these ideas as its own sequel. Kudos to Nintendo and Illumination for shooting their shot and leaving nothing on the table, with a few obvious exceptions. (The sequel will definitely include Yoshi and almost certainly include Wario. And it’s very easy to see Nintendo/Illumination making a Zelda movie, perhaps a Pokemon or Animal Crossing film, and a culminating Super Smash Bros-type Avengers crossover within ten years.)

On a voice acting front, the movie isn’t the catastrophe that some observers feared. In particular, Pratt acquits himself far better than you’d expect from the trailers: He inhabits a little bit more of Mario’s pluckishness than just being Chris Pratt saying the five familiar catchphrases over-and-over — though he certainly gets to do that. Did we really need two slow-mo “Mamma Mia!”s?

The rest of the cast is up and down. Seth Rogen, by contrast to Pratt, is just Seth Rogen saying Donkey Kong things. Black is absolutely terrific as Bowser; funny and G-rated nasty. He gets a couple musical moments to show off his singing. Taylor-Joy is the odd one out among the leads; she doesn’t have the right spunk or sparkle for the role. (Mae Whitman would have slain.) The supporting cast is hit or miss — Fred Armisen as Cranky Kong being the catastrophic miss.

And before I get too cynical, there are a few bits of fun personality on the fringes: A squeaky blue star has pitch-black existential angst, and I laughed every time it spoke. Luigi gets some spooky moments when he’s first kidnapped, including a lightning bolt reveal of Shy Guys that actually made me jump a little. A runner about Mario hating the flavor of mushrooms is pretty good (or perhaps it just feels that way because it’s a bit of actual joke writing in a vast desert of such). Lastly (or, chronologically, firstly), there’s a weird charm in Mario and Luigi as blue collar laborers that I’m disappointed the movie abandons halfway through the first act; it made them actual likable characters.

But I must circle back to one important thing: This movie does not really have a story after the twenty minute point (and it never even returns to or resolves the one it started, even by the end credits). It’s a patchwork of action segments and colorful effects. It is content to be entirely surface level in its pleasures. And it’s pretty good at that; perhaps even great if you are a Nintendo freak. But I can’t really give an earnest thumbs up to a movie with such a palpable narrative void.

My main recommendation for The Super Mario Bros. Movie: Trust your instincts. You probably already know whether you are going to like this. If so, don’t let me stop you. But if you were holding out for something a little more ambitious or thoughtful than your average Illumination fare, I have only bad news. Fun animation, relentless comic action, wraps up in barely 90 minutes, great brand reverence… nothing more.

Is It Good?

Nearly Good (4/8)

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2 replies on “The Super Mario Bros. Movie (2023)”

“culminating Super Smash Bros-type Avengers crossover within ten years”

Oh Lord. You’re probably right.

It does look like it’s got a lotta colors, though, and I am a five year old at heart.

As someone who saw the movie with his five-year-old kid, I can say with evidence that you’d probably enjoy it quite a bit, then!

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