Mamma Mia, it’s-a big, beautiful… commercial.
Super Mario has always existed.
Obviously this is objectively not true. The character we now know as Mario was first Jump Man in the 1981 video game Donkey Kong, an arcade cabinet about a mustachioed man in overalls attempting to rescue a damsel from a mad gorilla. He went on to become the star of his own series of video games, and was the flagship title for when Nintendo launched their own home console in Super Mario Bros., a game that all but defined the genre of the “platformer,” games where the player has to use manual dexterity to assist their digital avatar to traverse treacherous terrain. Year on year, the Super Mario franchise of video games would evolve and perfect this formula, providing playful character design as a palette for which players would explore exciting stage designs.
And Mario has always been there in my life. Some of my earliest memories are sitting in front of a TV, Nintendo controller in hand, controlling my best friend through the mushroom kingdom, transfixed by the variety of worlds he would discover. As I grew up, Mario grew more complex, eventually entering into three-dimensions and including an ever-growing cast of colorful characters, each more inventive than the last.
For all of these reasons, The Super Mario Bros. Movie would seem like something pitched perfectly at me, a faithful adaptation of a beloved world that I have returned to again and again and again. After all, the pure nostalgia-based dopamine this film is centered around is geared directly at my experience, my brain. And make no mistake, the film which is a joint production with Illumination (the Minions/Despicable Me studio) and Nintendo is precisely that: a faithful recreation of the games in a new medium, down to pitch-perfect character design, movement, and references for keen-eyed Nintendo fanatics. And not just for the Mario franchise itself; homages to the long storied history of Nintendo across the board are easily apparent throughout the film, down to minute details in the set design.
The reason for this near obsessive faithfulness to the source material is not difficult to suss out. 30 years ago, the first attempt at adapting the franchise was anything but faithful, a live-action mishmash of elements that were drawn from the game intermixed with an early 90s dystopian satire that was both manic and disorienting. The end effect was a movie that made gestures towards the games, but was decidedly its own thing. The first live-action film based on a video game, the movie was a critical and financial flop, and was disowned by most everyone involved with it, most notably Mario actor Bob Hoskins who derided it as the nadir of his career.
For this reason, Nintendo has spent the last three decades very gun shy about collaborating with American studios, demanding if they were to make another film adaptation it would have under their guidance and as true as possible to the games themselves. Thus we have this object now, which is essentially a feature length adaptation of what the games suggest.
The major problem with all of this is that the Super Mario Bros. games, for all their brilliance in terms of character and level design, have never been a narrative-first franchise. Film, however, often is, meaning that translating from one form to another require some careful consideration of how you adapt between different media. An adaptation that the new Super Mario Bros. seems doggedly against. It’s beautifully animated, but the heart of the thing is brand preservation and extension. The movie plays like a very expensive commercial, pointing towards the thing it is honoring rather than having any identity unto itself.
As far as that plot goes, it is as straight forward as any of the games: a parallel world to our own is being threatened by Bowser, a turtle-dragon warlord. After capturing the powerful super star, Bowser plans to both destroy the peaceful Mushroom Kingdom while also simultaneously attempting to woo their monarch, the level-headed Princess Peach. The saviors of this mythical, technicolor world? Two plumbers from the Bronx, Mario and Luigi, who are sucked into the Mushroom Kingdom through a magical sewer pipe. Well, really mostly Mario, as Luigi is relegated to the potion of hapless coward and damsel in distress for must of the film’s run time.
And that’s basically it. The film isn’t interested in providing any particular take on these characters other than these ones are good, these ones are bad, and the good ones have to stop the bad ones. The titular Mario Bros. are themselves empty shells of characters. It is telling that the most interesting sequences of the film are when the camera takes a hard locked side-view, allowing action sequences to play out as if they were impossible Mario levels. A whole scene is dedicated to Mario basically getting good at Mario games. It is when the film has to slow down to explore the plot that the film drags. It is at its best when it is running on the fumes of pure kinetic energy, when its game roots are most evident. When it is trying to be a movie? Not so engaging.
It is hard to blame the voice actors for their lackluster performances. Much hand-wringing has been made over Chris Pratt’s take on Mario, but the end result is mostly fine if uninspired. Anya-Taylor Joy’s Peach and Charlie Day’s Luigi are even less engaging, mostly because their characters are somehow even flatter. The only actor given anything to sink their teeth into is Jack Black as Bowser, whose conflicted desire to both rule and love Peach is the one comedic angle the film has on any character that work whole cloth, mostly because it takes a truth about the games and gently undercuts it. Bowser is a silly character, and the film acknowledges that to its best benefit. You can only imagine a movie that digs an inch more under the surface of what it’s drawing from.
These are potentially unfair criticisms to lob at a film with such market-driven designs. The movie likely is what it sets out to be, and when it is in movement it mostly engages those centers of the brain. But compare this exercise to the LEGO Movie series, an equally market-driven film that finds a perspective on the thing it is riffing on and creates something magical that elevates both the film and the brand simultaneously. And they even have great Chris Pratt voice over performances!
By comparison, The Super Mario Bros. Movie is a soulless parade of “Here’s the thing you know, doing the thing you expect it to do.” There is no thrill of newness, but rather a stale conformity to being just like it has always been. It contracts the world of Mario into a simple package rather than expanding it. For as misguided as some of the choices of the 1993 Mario movie may have been, they were at least choices. Its brother, three decades later, is somehow flatter and duller. Almost certainly watching the 1993 version would be at least more interesting, or better yet, just play a Mario game. Which ultimately is probably the desired effect of the movie in the first place. So mission accomplished I suppose, but as a movie, it’s easily discarded and never thought of again.