The Super Mario Bros. Movie (2023)
Directors: Michael Jelenic, Aaron Horvath
Screenwriters: Matt Fogel, Shuntaro Furukawa
Starring: Chris Pratt, Anya Taylor-Joy, Charlie Day, Jack Black, Keegan-Michael Key, Seth Rogen
It has been thirty years since Mario made his last big-screen appearance in the Bob Hoskins-fronted live-action masterpiece (if you ask the right people…) of videogame cinema. Given the popularity of the ‘Super Mario Bros.’ video game franchise, it’s incredible to think that it has taken so long to get another, and perhaps a testament to how bad of a flop the original was. Now that sufficient time has passed, it’s all a distant memory to everyone except those of us who saw something special behind its questionable exterior. Finally, everyone’s favourite Italian family business is back with a far more faithful adaptation of the games we all know. But being more faithful doesn’t always mean that it’s much of an improvement…
The Super Mario Bros. Movie comes from Illumination this time, the studio that brought us the Despicable Me and Sing franchises, and it is at least visually in safe hands. Aesthetically, for the most part, it looks and feels like a super-high-quality albeit very extensive cut scene. Mario, Luigi, Bowser and every other character that already exists in the Nintendo universe look fantastic. Seeing as Nintendo’s most recent console release, the Nintendo Switch, is still a step behind its competitors in terms of graphic output, it’s at least fun to see this world presented in such high definition.
There is a bit of a clash of styles once we start meeting the more minor, background characters, however. They’re all designed in the typical Illumination style rather than attempting to match the style of the Nintendo characters. It’s only a slight difference, but it does have the effect of making Mario and company stick out a bit more than they should. Other than that slight complaint, it’s vibrant and colourful, and it’s more or less what a big-budget Nintendo adaptation should look like.
The narrative starts in a fairly typical place: Bowser and the Koopa Troop have attacked a region that loosely resembles the Snow Kingdom from ‘Super Mario Odyssey’. Bowser pursues a Super Star powerup that he plans on using to win Princess Peach’s affection. Meanwhile on Earth, Mario and Luigi are filming an ad for their newly set up plumbing business. At first, everything is fairly realistic if a bit heightened for the two of them, and they’re just going around doing whatever jobs they can get. After seeing reports of a significant leak on the local news, they spot their big opportunity to make a name for themselves. It all goes wrong when Mario is sucked into the Mushroom Kingdom and Luigi is sucked into a dimension that is essentially ‘Luigi’s Mansion’.
We meet Toad who accompanies Mario to meet Princess Peach so he can plead for some help in finding his newly-lost brother, and this is where it all gets somewhat strange. Mario immediately goes from being any other person on Earth to being considered a bit of an oddity by Peach on account of him being a human in a non-human world. Mario doesn’t seem all that phased by anything. This leads to the major conflict of the film as Bowser is overcome with jealous rage, seeing that Mario is in such close proximity to the Princess that he desires.
It’s a shame that during all of this, Luigi is somewhat forgotten about. We see where he is and there are sufficient visual clues for us to know that he’s entered the world from his title games, but that’s about it. Most of the time is spent with Mario and Peach trying to come up with a plan to find him while avoiding Bowser, and we only meet him again when he’s needed for the story to progress. Ultimately, it isn’t anything that we haven’t played already, even though there was a chance of bringing the two worlds together in a much more meaningful way.
It isn’t quite hitting us over the head saying “Remember this thing you liked?”, but there is a feeling that remembering the thing you liked is paramount to getting along with this particular video game adaptation.
Of course, one of the more prominent tropes of the videogame movie genre (if we can call it that) is nostalgic references. Whether it’s a direct game-to-film adaptation or an original title like Wreck-It Ralph, more modern releases in the space tend to be saturated with callbacks to things we already know. The Super Mario Bros. Movie is no different, and there are plenty of references that will make fans of the franchise say “Oh!” quite regularly. Some other pop culture references are played for jokes in its soundtrack, though these are not quite as successful. Songs that we recognise from films such as Kill Bill play on top of battle scenes that could’ve felt a little more authentic had the depths of the Mario franchise’s discography been explored more.
A key ingredient in a film like this is joy, but The Super Mario Bros. Movie is somewhat absent of that. Jack Black sounds as if he’s having a great time as Bowser – it’s even reminiscent of how Robin Williams played the Genie in Aladdin – and similar can be said for Charlie Day’s Luigi, Seth Rogen’s Donkey Kong and Keegan-Michael Key’s Toad, but our two main characters don’t seem all that interested. Chris Pratt as Mario and Anya Taylor-Joy as Princess Peach come across as disconnected. What calls for quite an enthusiastic performance is often met with something more indifferent. Other reviews have spoken about the dialogue being stilted, but it’s not so bad that it wouldn’t have been forgivable if it were delivered with a bit more liveliness.
As a new adaptation, The Super Mario Bros. Movie is certainly more faithful and recognisable than its live-action cousin, but it’s almost to a fault. It doesn’t quite do enough to provide existing fans with anything exciting or give new fans a reason to dive any deeper into the franchise. Although it looks fantastic for the most part, and Jack Black’s performance as Bowser gives us some memorable scenes, there’s hardly anything else to this latest Hollywood foray into the Nintendo library.
Written by Rob Jones