Lovingly crafted animation fatally undermined by substance-free storytelling
Beginning with Donkey Kong in 1981 and their own standalone video arcade game, Mario Bros., just two years later, Mario and Luigi, erstwhile plumbers and brothers from the same Italian mother, found their way to video arcades across the world. Video arcades and console games were never the same. Success, however, in other media, specifically film, proved to be a challenge, made all the worse by the first — and forty years later, only — attempt to bring the Mario Bros. to live-action screens and audiences. Against all reason and logic, the 1993 film, Super Mario Bros., co-starring the late Bob Hopkins and John Leguizamo as Mario and Luigi respectively, has ascended to cult status among a certain subset of nostalgia-oriented video game fans.
While taste, as always, remains a subjective proposition, the demands of the marketplace, not to mention the needs of corporations to churn revenue and profit from preexisting IP, has led inexorably to The Super Mario Bros. Movie (aka Fan Service: The Movie), a collaboration between Nintendo and Illumination, the French-based animation studio behind the Despicable Me/Minions franchise. The effort to bring the Mario Bros. and their world to reel life are everywhere onscreen, but a frantic, frenetically paced storyline, flat, one-dimensional characters, and shallow, broad-based humor will leave all but diehard fans of the videogame series dissatisfied, disappointed, or even despondent after waiting 30 years for the Mario Bros. to receive another go at multiplex screens.
Bookended by scenes set in an imaginary, fictionalized Brooklyn that bares little resemblance to the real world, The Super Mario Bros. Movie opens with Mario (voiced by Chris Pratt) and his younger brother, Luigi (Charlie Day), walking, talking stereotypes both, in the equivalent of start-up mode, leaving unfulfilling employment working for wrecking company to open their own plumbing business. For Mario and his go-along to get-along brother Luigi, becoming full-time plumbers translates into a dream come true, but when their first gig goes predictably awry, they somehow find themselves sucked into a magical pipe-portal connecting Brooklyn and the magical, mystical Mushroom Kingdom (among others).
Deposited at opposite ends of this not-so-brave new world, thus setting what passes for a plot into motion, Mario and Luigi find themselves in vastly different circumstances, Mario on the outskirts of the Mushroom Kingdom, Luigi in the sunless, strip-mined world ruled by Bowser (Jack Black), a tyrannical turtle-monster with a penchant for song. Along with the usual desire to conquer the known world, Bowser suffers from an unhealthy fixation, an unrequited romantic obsession with Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy), the de facto ruler of the Mushroom Kingdom and its diminutive, mushroom-shaped people.
The painfully simplistic story turns on Mario inadvertently joining Princess Peach’s effort to stave off Bowser’s invasion of the Mushroom Kingdom, saving Luigi in the process. To bring various elements of the video game series into onscreen play, Princess Peach attempts to form an alliance with the Jungle Kingdom, its leader, Cranky Kong (Fred Armisen), and the leader’s maturity-deficient son, Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen). That, in turn, sets up a reasonable facsimile of the Donkey Kong game, pitting an out-of-his-league Mario against a much bigger, much stronger foe (barrels are flung from great heights, barrels are missed in the nick of time).
The Super Mario Bros. Movie crams a dizzying array of Easter Eggs and fan service into its rapid-fire, fast-paced 92-minute running time (including credits). It spends almost all of that thankfully brief running time on nostalgia-filled call-outs to four decades worth of Nintendo video games, including, but not limited to, the original Mario Bros. (in an early montage where Mario learns gameplay parameters for taking on Bowser and his gang), the aforementioned Mario vs. Donkey Kong challenge, and Super Mario Kart (among too many others to cite here).
That leaves non-video game fans on the outside looking in, though to Illumination’s credit, they deliver an incredibly detailed, textured animated world, energetic set pieces, and faithful character designs to make most diehard video game fans happy if not outright ecstatic at seeing their onetime childhood favorites receiving the big-screen treatment. For everyone else, though, The Super Mario Bros. Movie may worth a bargain matinee or a stream when it hits a major online platform, though even there, the rule of diminishing returns will hit sooner rather than later.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie opens theatrically on Wednesday, April 5th.