Let me paint you a picture: It’s May 1993 and Walt Disney, via distributor Buena Vista Pictures, is about to release a film co-written by Ed Solomon (Men in Black/Bill & Ted franchise), starring Bob Hoskins (Who Framed Roger Rabbit?), John Leguizamo (Violent Night), Dennis Hopper (Blue Velvet), Samantha Mathis (Broken Arrow), and Fiona Shaw (Andor), based on the best-selling video game by Nintendo Co., Ltd., Super Mario Bros.. This film, Super Mario Bros., is considered the first video game adaptation and it *bombed*. Doesn’t matter if there are fans who enjoy revisiting the wildly imaginative dystopian world (it’s a-me!), ‘93’s Super Mario Bros. is nothing like what gamers have experienced whenever they turn on their Nintendo to adventure with Mario, brother Luigi, or friends Toadstool, Toad, Toadette, Yoshi, and others as they have now, for generations (people and gaming systems). Throwing their hat into the ring to change things is Universal Pictures’s animation arm Illumination (Despicable Me/Sing) with an A-List voice cast, The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part (2019) story co-creator Matthew Fogel, and co-directors Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic (the co-writers of Teen Titans GO! to the Movies). While it lacks the originality and inventiveness of either The Second Part or GO!, the resulting film, The Super Mario Bros. Movie, is going to wow fans with easter eggs and delight families with the relatively breezy action. This film doesn’t exactly break the mold, but it’s been a minute since the series did, too.
Sinister forces are in motion as King Bowser (voiced by Jack Black) seeks the take over all of the Mushroom Kingdom, requiring ruler Princess Toadstool (voiced by Anya Taylor-Joy) to create alliances across the land. At the same time, two Brooklyn siblings, Mario and Luigi (voiced by Chris Pratt and Charlie Day), find themselves transported into this strange realm and subsequently separated. Confused and lost, Mario meets Toad (voiced by Keegan Michael-Key) who offers to introduce him to the princess. Though Mario only wants to find his brother, the timing of his arrival is fortuitous as every plumber knows that the right tool can get the job done and Princess Toadstool can use every one available.
Let’s jump straight into this: The Super Mario Bros. Movie (SMB) is a brisk 92-minute ride (with a post-credit scene) that’s going to delight young audiences, which is the typical target audience for an Illumination project. There are plenty of easter eggs, references, and jokes that the parents (i.e. likely first gamers of the household) will understand, but this rainbow-colored sugar-coated flick isn’t for them. It’s for my almost-eight-year-old who mainlines Super Mario Maker 2, obsessing over the boards he imagines until it’s a either a coin-filled utopia or lava-filled hellscape, and Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe where he can switch between playable characters to take advantage of the varying character bonuses. Mario fighting Donkey Kong serves as a wink to the classic Donkey Kong days as well as to Smash Bros. fans, but Mario wearing the catsuit is for him. (Mario wearing the Tanooki? That’s for those of us who saw The Wizard in theaters, iykyk.) So while family entertainment *can* have multi-generational appeal, it doesn’t have to and SMB doesn’t even try to do that. The games themselves aren’t exactly bastions of heroics with in-depth explorations of valor, examining the nature of life and death, held back only by the strange fungus and flora that grants humans incredible abilities. No, it’s a side-scroller where the object is to stop Bowser from taking (or keeping) control of the Mushroom Kingdom (in most games). The games aren’t deep and asking SMB to break from that, while nice, isn’t a requirement.
So what does it do?
The narrative is clear and simple: Bowser’s up to no good, Toadstool is on a mission to stop him, and the Mario Bros. end up in the thick of it. Everything in between is literal set dressing, helping to infuse the scenes with referential material to the history of Nintendo, as well as the Super Mario games. The Mario Bros. Plumbing commercial? That’s a clear riff on the 1989 The Super Mario Bros. Super Show! with Lou Albano as Mario and Danny Wells as Luigi and it’s the obvious thing to offer for the adults. But in the scene that follows the commercial, audiences are shown the duo watching it in a pizzeria, Punch-Out Pizzaria, to be specific, complete with photos and other memorabilia from protagonist Little Mac’s victories. But a fast eye will notice that there’s a far more subtle reference in the same scene acknowledging the original name for Donkey Kong, the 1981 video game which first featured Mario as he attempted to rescue Pauline from DK. The references aren’t always delivered in the most subtle or effective ways (one classic line is way more forced than it should’ve been), but when they work, they frickin’ sing, garnering some genuine excitement from knowledgeable viewers. In one instance, an item that first appeared in Mario Party 4 gets no intro before use and I legitimately saw it and internally shouted “oh, no!,” my amusement only amplified by what happens next. From the commercials and marketing materials, audiences know that go-karting is going to play a significant role in the narrative, but the manner in which Fogel transitions to the racing portion, all I could think during my childless press screening is how much my kid is going to *lose his damn mind.* Because of these strengths, because of how often I thought of how my son would react, I couldn’t help but feel as though, no matter the weaknesses, the people who are meant to see this film will walk out feeling like they just earned First Place in the 150 cc Special Cup.
Let’s be honest, there are plenty of weaknesses with the film that go beyond the reliance on references. Due to the short run-time, there’s little opportunity for the characters to really engage with each other in any kind of deep way. Bowser’s the bad guy and Black demonstrates very quickly how he was absolutely the right person for the gig. Imagine the vibe of Black’s School of Rock (2003) and that’s Bowser, which works within the framework of the rest of the film. Similarly, Taylor-Joy gives Toadstool an additional sense of agency and purpose beyond what’s on the page. Thankfully, the script keeps her as far away from being a damsel as possible and Taylor-Joy comfortably brings this side of Toadstool to life. That said, the script gives a reason as to why Bowser does what he does and without it being explored or given any kind of backstory, it feels incredibly forced. And while Fogel makes absolutely certain that Mario (& Luigi to some degree) is the reason that the tide turns for Toadstool, he’s not the focal point one would expect in of a fish-out-of-water/hero’s journey-type tale. If not for the quick pace of everything, SMB wouldn’t so much drag as be more obvious for its relative emptiness.
Ultimately, The Super Mario Bros. Movie is a perfect family film in that it’ll entertain the kids, provide a few chuckles for the adults, and offer a chance to bond over a shared interest. It doesn’t challenge race relations/governmental corruption (Zootopia), explore cultural appropriation (Trolls World Tour), or examine how doing the right thing is a choice we make every day (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse), but it doesn’t have to. Family entertainment *can* have these features and are often better off for it, but the fact that SMB keeps at its core an idea of sibling love and bravery is enough. Mario is the guy who keeps getting up, who keeps trying to save the day, who uses his environment to his advantage, and who was drifting well before anyone was either fast or furious. That’s enough to have a good time.
In U.S. theaters April 5th, 2023.
In Japanese theaters April 28th, 2023.
For more information, head to the official The Super Mario Bros. Movie website.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.