Directed by Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic.
Featuring the voice talents of Chris Pratt, Anya Taylor-Joy, Charlie Day, Jack Black, Keegan-Michael Key, Seth Rogen, Fred Armisen, Kevin Michael Richardson, Sebastian Maniscalco, Charles Martinet, Khary Payton, Eric Bauza, Jessica DiCicco, Jeannie Elias, and Juliet Jelenic.
While working underground to fix a water main, Brooklyn plumbers—and brothers—Mario and Luigi are transported down a mysterious pipe and wander into a magical new world. But when the brothers are separated, Mario embarks on an epic quest to find Luigi.
It is disappointing that The Super Mario Bros. Movie, the big-screen animated adaptation of a videogame franchise that has been at the forefront of platforming innovation and endearing simplicity, has not only been reduced and molded to fit the unambitious and lackadaisical Illumination brand (Minions garbage) but is also this generic and soulless.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie speed runs through as much fan service as possible, warping through several locations and set piece ideas without ever establishing them appealingly through storytelling or visual splendor. There’s a point where the many iconic Super Mario Bros. characters decide that their best chance at saving the Mushroom Kingdom involves racing to a certain ambush point using go-karts, except it comes off as less of a plot point and more of a desperate, placating plea of “look, we are giving you Rainbow Road, although we have no idea what the hell to do with it besides render some pretty colors!”.
Nothing is impressive about seeing how much of an image can be filled with easter eggs, inside jokes, and fan service. Directors Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic (working from a screenplay by Matthew Fogel, based on characters and dozens of games created by Shigeru Miyamoto and others at Nintendo, including one of the all-time great video game score composers in Koji Kondo who has had many of his tunes here arranged into overly serious, nostalgia-bait cringe) all fall into the trap of amassing a treasure trove’s worth of elements people love about everything Super Maro Bros., but no firm grasp or understanding on how to weave them into an experience that also feels like those games.
There’s an early scene in Brooklyn where Italian sibling plumbers Mario and Luigi (voiced by Chris Pratt and Charlie Day in harmless but unremarkable performances) rush to a fixer-upper gig, where the race across the city takes on a side-scrolling tracking shot perspective replete with hopping. It’s one of very few visually impressive segments. Still, it also works because, for once, the film is allowing itself to embrace its gaming origins proudly. Mario and Luigi are also such iconic characters that wasting 10 or 15 minutes depicting their plumbing lives to either ground them into the real world or explain who they are is pointless.
This comes after The Super Mario Bros. Movie begins relatively fine, introducing the villainous spiked oversized turtle Bowser (impressively voiced by Jack Black, especially during his amusingly obsessive moments over making Princess Peach his wife, but more on her soon), his discovery of a magical Super Star, and his plans to overthrow the Mushroom Kingdom. It’s simple, effective storytelling fitting of an adaptation of games that primarily have no plot other than stomping on enemies’ heads in an effort to rescue a princess.
The first sign of trouble is when the filmmakers choose to interrupt the flow of that opening sequence with some licensed music, which turns out to be a repeated offense (with so many questionable song choices). Once Mario and Luigi are properly established as struggling workers not exactly making their parents (voiced by Charles Martinet, the longtime voiceover actor for Mario in the games) proud, they find themselves sucked into another world and separated; Mario ends up in the Mushroom Kingdom whereas Luigi finds himself inside the more hostile environments and eventually kidnapped by Bowser and his shelled troops. Cue the corny story about how they can do anything when they are united.
Far more frustrating is that The Super Mario Bros. Movie constantly feels the need to explain plot elements, characters, areas, and power-up mechanics rather than just showing the audience (an audience that most likely knows how all of this works, whether they are familiar with the games or not. from cultural osmosis) and constructing extended platforming segments. Too much of the movie consists of familiar chase sequences and action structuring to be found in similarly basic animated features. Anytime the film introduces a theoretically exciting aspect from one of the games, it squanders that opportunistic potential.
Nevertheless, Mario is taken to Princess Peach (voiced by Anya Taylor-Joy as a girl power stereotype), who is apparently not human and has mysterious origins that are presumably left to be further explained in sequels, where she enlists him to win the favor of the Kong army for battling Bowser and his minions. Meanwhile, Seth Rogen pops into voice the hotheaded and destructive Donkey Kong, although it’s a disappointing turn as it feels like he is playing himself. There’s obviously not much of a character to latch on to. Still, here more than anyone else, the star-studded celebrity cast comes across as a detriment, favoring star power over unique personality.
Oddly enough, Chris Pratt and Charlie Day are fine, although the latter is probably made out to be a bit too dimwitted. Solid voiceover performances inside, nothing about this tale of brothers down on their luck transforms into anything remotely emotionally satisfying. This is only a problem because the movie is bafflingly going for that. Jack Black is the only one that shines, switching between a terrorizing leader and a delusional incel singing silly melodies about marrying Princess Peach and how her hatred of him only increases his affection for her. No one will want The Super Mario Bros. Movie as much as Bowser desires Princess Peach.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at [email protected]
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