‘The Super Mario Bros. Movie’ Had a Low Bar to Clear—and It Still Can’t Make It
2/5 Fire Flowers
The last time someone tried to make a Super Mario Bros. movie, they ended up with a mess so torturous that the actors literally got drunk between takes. That first attempt was so bad that Nintendo refused to allow another for 30 years. When I saw it at age 12, I left the theater embarrassed that I’d made my parents sit through it.
I’m happy to report that the new movie is better than the first. It’s now, in my opinion, the best Super Mario Bros. movie ever made, but that’s not saying much.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie starts off in Brooklyn, a nod to Mario’s origin story in the ’80s. Mario and Luigi, faced with a floundering plumbing business, find a secret portal that whisks them off to the Mushroom Kingdom. There they find themselves in the middle of a crisis: Bowser is invading, and Luigi is captured and held hostage.
When I was a kid, what made Super Mario Bros. more than just a side-scroller was the story I inserted between the game’s levels. Why was Mario in this strange new land? How did he feel about all these killer turtles? What were his relationships with the other characters like? As a child geek with no friends, I loved pondering this stuff, and that was why I was so excited when the cartoon show came out in 1989. Stomping koopas was fun when I held the controller, but when I watched the show, I wanted plot and character. You know, the stuff that goes into a watchable story.
Sadly, The Super Mario Bros. Movie doesn’t seem to understand any of that. All of the emotional beats are shoved to the margins in favor of video game references. Mario punches blocks, grabs power ups, runs across falling platforms, and dodges piranha plants. In whatever spare time he has left, he breezily comes to terms with the fact that he’s trapped in an alternate universe where his little brother may have already been murdered. The movie literally feels like video game levels punctuated by cutscenes.
That’s not to say that it’s totally bereft of story. Someone, somewhere along the chain of command, obviously wanted this to be an actual movie, because they were able to squeeze in some genuinely sweet moments. In one of the most enjoyable scenes, we meet Mario and Luigi’s large and boisterous family as they sit down to dinner. Mario hates mushrooms (whomp whomp), but he knows Luigi likes them, so he picks them out of his pasta and puts them on Luigi’s plate. Mario’s love for his brother is the narrative glue that ostensibly holds the story together, and it’s heartwarming when we actually get to see it.
Another high point of the movie is Jack Black as Bowser. You love to see one icon playing another icon, and Black seems to viscerally understand what makes Bowser so awesome. I’m pretty sure it’s against federal law to cast Black without giving him at least one song to sing, so we get treated to Bowser crooning love songs on a Ludwig Von Koopa-branded piano.
The other actors are all fine. Chris Pratt is lackluster but serviceable as Mario. Charlie Day, Anya Taylor-Joy, Keegan-Michael Key, Seth Rogan, and Fred Armisen do their best. They’re fantastic in other projects—Armisen is one of my favorite actors—but they just don’t have much to work with here. Kevin Michael Richardson does a good Peter Lorre impression as the magikoopa Kamek, and Charles Martinet, who voices Mario in the games, has a fun cameo.
I always have trouble judging kids’ movies. How much of my annoyance is because of the movie’s flaws, and how much is the fact that I’m seeing it 30 years too late? But there’s children’s media I love, like Moana, The Last Unicorn, and Bluey. A good story is a good story, no matter what age group it’s aimed at. Ironically, The Super Mario Bros. Movie fails not because it’s aimed at kids, but because it seems to be aimed at nostalgic millennials like me.
The post-credit scene leaves an obvious opening for a sequel, and Nintendo has already debuted its own animated title card, so it’s possible that they’ll tweak and perfect the formula as the inevitable Mario movie franchise begins to churn out films. After all, there are series in which the first movie sucks and subsequent films become classics. I suppose I’m not ready to give up hope that I’ll see a good Mario movie before I die.
For now, though, I think I’ll get more enjoyment out of dusting off my NES. Maybe that was the purpose of the Mario movie all along.
(featured image: Universal Pictures)
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