In April of 2023, Universal released The Super Mario Bros Movie. The film was made as a co-production between Nintendo, the titular video game’s franchise creators, and the Illumination animation studio, known for profitable and lukewarm animated movies made as bland as possible to appeal to the largest swath of general audiences.
The film’s original release date was December 21st, 2022. But when Puss in Boots: The Last Wish took that slot, Universal decided to move the release date to April 7th. In late February of 2023, news dropped that the film would debut two days earlier on April 5th. A possible reason for moving this date was to have an earlier box office draw for release on Spring Break. This was expected based on how the film was set to debut in Japan on April 28th, amid their block of holidays referred to as Golden Week. Another reason might be that Universal feared the box office numbers going into Easter weekend.
But another possible reason could have had to do with the review embargo, that being the time when critics are allowed to post their reviews.
The Mario Movie review embargo was set for April 4th, a mere day before the movie would debut. An embargo so close to the release date is usually present to ensure that reviews don’t get out too soon before everybody buys their tickets. That’s usually the case because even some of the bigger blockbusters will have an embargo date set 2-3 days before the film’s release to generate more press. By the time the reviews dropped for the Mario movie, most fans would already have their tickets preordered or be on their way to the midnight screenings.
The critic reviews were split. Roughly half the critics thought the film was an unfunny mess of references to the video games or a lukewarm love letter to the fans who wanted their Nintendo trivia rewarded. Even positive reviews still had issues with the bland performances, unrelenting brand recognition, jukebox soundtrack, and lacking narrative structure. Reading through all the reviews, the consensus was that the enjoyment of the film ultimately came down to how much the Mario style and Nintendo citations could make up for Illumination’s usual problem with their animated films.
However, that’s the conclusion one would reach if they read the many reviews. If someone instead only looked at the Rotten Tomatoes score, different theories formed-wild theories based on little more than number disparities. This is, sadly, a typical overreaction by the most defensive of fans.
I won’t waste time regurgitating why I didn’t like the Mario movie. I’ve already made my points known in my review. And if you’re a major fan who clicked on this article, you have presumably already seen the movie and formed your own opinion. If you loved the film regardless of all my qualms, that’s an opinion that I probably won’t change, and I’m not going to try it here.
I don’t want to talk about the film on that level. I want to address the reaction to the critic’s score and why the overactive response is not worth pursuing and is usually based on baseless platitudes.
There’s been this meme that accurately scripts the knee-jerk response to critics’ score versus the audience’s score. If the movie is one you like or just one you want to champion sight unseen, you could look at the disparity between the critic’s score and the audience’s score, then declare that the audience’s score is the only thing that matters unless you hate the movie. Then the critic’s score is the only thing that matters.
Sure enough, this was the exact defense that many used for why the Mario movie was good. It had nothing to do with the critics’ writing or their opinions. It was all about the numbers and forming weird theories around those numbers.
They also use previous examples of similar disparities to showcase how the critics are always wrong. This could easily be disproven by citing many reviews where critics and audience scores were leveled. I could post a few for the people making this argument, but then they would fire back with other scores that reflect their theory and then counter again, which would continue until one of us got bored and gave up.
That’s just one bizarre narrative, so let’s dispel a few more.
“The critics were all paid by Disney.”
Again, this could be disproven by citing past Disney films that have not scored well. If Disney was paying off critics, why weren’t they sending out checks for Rise of the Skywalker, The Eternals, A Wrinkle in Time, or The Nutcracker…you get the idea.
“Rotten Tomatoes has been compromised, and I can’t trust them.”
This might shock those who don’t know how Rotten Tomatoes works, but the critics DO NOT work for Rotten Tomatoes. They work for whatever publication publishes their review, and Rotten Tomatoes then picks it up.
And if the issue is with previous score disparities, again, that can be disproven by any number of cherry-picked examples to counter other cherry-picked examples. But that ultimately just ends up being an endless loop of citations that will get us nowhere. So let’s avoid that.
“Did the critics forget this is a movie for children?”
This is a common defense for kid’s movies. If a film is marketed to kids, defenders will say critics didn’t like it because it was not for adults. Part of me understands the criticisms, and even I’ll admit amid a negative review that this film might appeal more to kids.
But the defenders making this argument are not arguing that kids’ voices are more precedent than critics’ reviews. They’re running a defense for a film not being good because kids don’t care about movies in the same way as adults. Despite the appeal to youngsters, this excuse becomes more insulting to the younger audience.
Don’t kids deserve a good movie? It’s not as though kids’ movies all have to be bombastic visual assaults of low-brow humor and half-thought scripts. Plenty of kids’ movies have crossed the aisle and have been enjoyed by all ages. I don’t have to push my criticisms aside because children might appreciate the film more.
“Critics expect too much from a Mario movie.”
This argument is similar to the turn-your-brain-off defense of movies that are not regarded highly. Turning your brain off should be an intuitive feeling if the film is working and not a switch that needs to be turned on when the movie starts. Another way to interpret the phrase “turn your brain off” is that you should “ignore the stuff that bothers you.”
Ignoring a film’s shortcomings depends entirely on how well that film works for you. If it’s not working, the flaws become more apparent. Not everybody will be able to enjoy the film on that level.
The other perspective on this argument is that critics were expecting a movie like Citizen Kane or Vertigo and that this film is not intellectually as stimulating. Once more, there are plenty of examples of scores to disprove this, but the idea that critics don’t enjoy the more straightforward diversion of movies is ridiculous.
So what did I expect from a Mario movie? I expected a fun dose of fantasy that had exciting characters worth following. The film I got didn’t have that. Minimal character is developed in this movie; some have arcs that either peter out or fail to materialize. And if the film didn’t need that much depth, what was even the point of addressing Princess Peach’s origins or Donkey Kong’s barely-existent daddy issues? If a Mario movie didn’t need these characters to develop, it shouldn’t even have this useless fat tacked onto the picture.
“The critics are all feminists and groomers and [insert right-wing boogeyman/pejorative here].”
This is a common excuse by YouTubers. There are many ways to dispel this rumor, but the easiest way to debunk it is to just look at who makes these claims. A quick reminder that most YouTubers making these claims were initially called The Super Mario Bros Movie woke because they dared to make Peach do something besides get kidnapped by Bowser.
But when the critic’s score came out, their narrative changed. Now, all that Peach boss girl discourse faded to focus on the film being one that the critics were wrong about. Perhaps they hoped the critics would mindlessly praise this aspect and give it rave reviews, but this wasn’t the case.
Josh Spiegel from SlashFilm wrote,
“[the fillm] flips the script so that Peach is not only not in distress, but is Mario’s true guide and a much more capable and powerful character than she was in the earliest iterations of the video games. That Peach is a character with recognizable agency as opposed to being a modernized take on the princess in need of rescuing from a fairy-tale monster is unquestionably a good thing, but the choice also feels like the most subversive decision of a film from 25 years ago, not from 2023.”
All this is to say that those with a platform making the claims of critics being wishy-washy or compromised are generally grifters who will sway wherever the reactionary algorithm wind is blowing. It’s helpful to recognize when these grifters are full of it and not pay them a mind the next time they pull this crap with a movie.
Look, no fan wants to go in and see a bad movie of their favorite franchise. I love Green Lantern. I love the comics, the lore, and the many lantern corps. I didn’t want the 2011 live-action movie to be terrible, but it was. It was a bad movie and I don’t need to run such ludicrous defenses to rationalize my love for Green Lantern as a comic book character.
A criticism of the Mario movie being bad does not mean it’s a criticism of the Mario games being bad or Nintendo being bad. Nintendo does have some questionable business practices, but that’s a story for another day. More importantly, criticizing the Super Mario Bros. Movie is not a criticism of YOU. And the Rotten Tomatoes critics’ score is even less so if your basis is an aggregate percentage of reviews you will most likely never read. They’re just numbers. They can’t hurt you or the pleasure you take from a movie.
I’d wrap up this article with a “too long, didn’t read” summary sentence, but that would be counterintuitive to my point: Please READ reviews. You’ll feel less paranoid and defensive about a ho-hum Mario movie if you better understand the perspectives that form the Rotten Tomatoes score. Don’t turn this video game movie into more culture war bullshit.