As a child of the 90’s, Nintendo, and the characters of the Mushroom Kingdom have been a critical asset of my upbringing. Whether it was staying up late at a friends house trying to destroy one another at Mario Kart on the N64, staying up far past our bedtimes, hooting and hollering at someone slipping on a banana peel right before crossing the finish line only to lose their spot in the race. Or when I was seven years old, scaring myself silly playing Luigi’s Mansion on the Gamecube and waking up my parents halfway through the night with my screams of simultaneous terror and glee. The likes of Mario and Luigi, Princess Peach, Donkey Kong, Toad, Bowser and more have existed throughout the lives of adults my age and older, to younger generations that still experience the thrill of an adventure by way of characters created by Nintendo and Shigeru Miyamoto. Whether you grew up playing the original arcade game, the versions on the N64, Gamecube, Wii or the current Nintendo Switch, these worlds and characters have impacted pop culture permanently. Now that video game adaptations have hit a new stride, the folks over at Illumination, behind the Despicable Me franchise, have partnered with Nintendo to bring the gold mine of game adaptations to life — and to further suppress the memory of the ungodly 1993 live-action movie. Aimed squarely at younger generations, this adaptation allows viewers to fully bask in the Nintendo universe on the big screen, assuming they can keep up with the frenetic pace of it all.
Mario (Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day), two Italians brothers and down-on-their-luck plumbers, find themselves sucked through a green pipe and transported from their home of Brooklyn into the strange world of Princess Peach’s Mushroom Kingdom. With the brothers separated, Mario comes across allies in Toad (Keegan Michael-Key) and Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy) to help rescue Luigi. However, Luigi has been kidnapped by the evil Bowser (Jack Black), and his army of Koopas, who has acquired the “Super Star” that will allow him to conquer the entire Mushroom Kingdom.
From the very beginning, it’s clear directors Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic, the minds behind the Teen Titans Go! series and the criminally underseen Teen Titans Go! To the Movies, take a great deal of care and passion into capturing the spirit of the games. Exact sounds, visuals, character designs and locations from the Super Mario games and spinoffs are recreated to an exact tee. In that sense alone, this is perhaps the most slavishly adapted video game adaptation ever made. The animation is downright stunning, with vibrant colors at every turn. Say what you will about the quality of Illumination’s catalogue, but they sure know how to make impeccable-looking animation. Produced by Nintendo and written by Matthew Fogel (Minions: The Rise of Gru), the film does admirable work incorporating the many popular games from the universe in coherent fashion. From the titular game to Mario Kart, Super Smash Bros and even Luigi’s Mansion are all nicely wound into the film’s narrative. Unsurprisingly, this is where the majority of the film’s best sequences are found. The visually dazzling Kart sequence taps into the thrill of being behind the wheel in the game and the utter chaos that typically ensues. In certain chase sequences, the filmmakers utilize the frame to mimic the classic platformer level design. It’s moments like these that give glimpses of inspiration that much of the film lacks.
It’s hard to complain about a film like this that clocks in at just 92 minutes, but the rapid pace it moves at does hinder any attempt at meaningful world building or character development. Like driving on a rainbow road, its frantic pace never slows down to take in the world and its many details. Many of the game’s best side characters and environments are relegated to easter eggs that fans will no doubt feel giddy when spotted, but the opportunity to build upon the already paper-thin plotting comes up short. For an adaptation of a game franchise that has an incredible arsenal of tools at its disposal, it’s shocking how overly simplistic the plot ends up being, even for a family film.
The voice cast is quite strong, with one glaring exception. Chris Pratt’s work as Mario is a rather large misstep. Pratt, who has done a number of strong voice work in both Lego Movie films and Pixar’s Onward, seemingly never finds a consistent tone for the character, with his Mario having a different cadence almost every other scene. The moments early on that put Pratt’s Mario opposite Charlie Day’s exceptional work as Luigi does the actor, and the character, no favors. The most inspired bit of voice casting comes from Jack Black as Bowser, who imbues the classic turtle-man villain with genuine menace and some well-placed beats of humor. The best type of voice acting from an a-lister is when you don’t recognize the voice and simply hear the character. That is precisely what Black does and Bowser, speaking in Black’s well-attuned gravelly voice, steals the film.
Other supporting players are relegated to the side almost immediately after their introductions. Keegan Michael-Key is unrecognizable in an impressive high register as Toad, whose voice work singlehandedly elevates the character beyond its generic “sidekick” treatment. Seth Rogen’s Donkey Kong hardly makes an impression and Charlie Day’s Luigi all but disappears for most of the films second half. Princess Peach is portrayed as a brave character that is fully capable of taking care of herself, set with immense fighting and driving skills. She’s far from the damsel she usually ended up as in the original games. Despite this and Anya Taylor-Joy’s strong voice work, we don’t get to know the character beyond her loyalty to her people and to helping Mario. If you’ve never played a Mario game, you’ll have little reason to care about any of these characters. In an age where we have films like The Lego Movie and even the recent Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, that contain sharp, clever writing and weighted subtext alongside fully dimensional characters, it’s not enough to rely on nostalgia to make up for good character writing.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie boasts some exceptional voice work, with the exception of its main star, and vibrant, colorful animation. However, the overly simplistic plot and frantic pace hinder what could have been a completely successful video game adaptation. It’s a playful, entertaining and occasionally funny family film that’s perfectly ok for what it is, but given the potential at hand, it should be more.