Nintendo fans might be taken aback by how The Super Mario Bros Movie opens with the typical Illumination logo presentation, featuring their iconic yellow minion characters engaging in a dose of slapstick before screaming “ILLUMINATION” at the top of their lungs. Remember how the Despicable Me and Minions movies all felt more like pastiches of animated gags than a cohesive animated feature? Well, that’s more or less what this Mario movie ends up being, getting the standard Illumination treatment which plays it safe.
The familiar formula can be seen in how the film develops its characters. Mario (Chris Pratt) is given more dimension than just being the vanilla happy-go-lucky character he is in the video games. His determination becomes his strength, and his doubt about being a better member of his family is a solid obstacle for the plumber to bust beyond blocks. His relationship with his brother/business partner Luigi (Charlie Day) is admirable for feeling responsible for his brother’s safety. He’s got a lot riding on his plumbing business.
But then the setting shifts from Brooklyn to a fantasy land of talking turtles and mushrooms. Here, the film becomes lost as much as Mario and Luigi in this colorful and frenetic landscape. Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy) agrees to help Mario save his brother, but only if he can help her defend his kingdom from the evil Bowser (Jack Black). Doing so will also require the help of egotistical Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen) and the brave pint-sized Toad (Keegan-Michael Key). They all have their motivations and backstories, but with so many fantastical set pieces being thrown at the screen, there’s very little time to explore Peach’s origins or Donkey Kong’s daddy issues.
It doesn’t take long for the film to become more about being a Nintendo feast of references, shadowing its characters almost entirely. There’s no time to appreciate the possible romantic chemistry between Mario and Peach or the empathy between Mario and Donkey Kong, not when there’s a Mario Kart race on the rainbow road. Remember that from the games? If you like that reference, you’ll probably appreciate how many other citations are slung into this picture, ranging from referencing the cult classic Wrecking Crew to the Gamecube startup music being used as a ringtone to Charles Martinet making an early cameo as the original Mario voice, present to give Pratt’s portrayal a thumbs up.
I will credit the film for painting a stunning fantasy world teeming with life, detail, and color. Everything from the lava-spewing ship of Bowser to the busy streets of the Mushroom Kingdom is lavishly designed. There’s a sequence in Bowser’s Badlands with the right tone for portraying it as a genuinely terrifying place, using the skeleton Koopas and masked Shy-Guys. Even the parts of the film that take place in Brooklyn look nice, presenting a believable world where such squat characters as Mario and Luigi could exist.
Without revealing too much of the plot, the film’s narrative feels more or less what the 1993 Super Mario Bros movie would’ve been if the filmmakers made it a cohesive fantasy adventure. While the devotion to the games and presenting decent arcs make this animated interpretation a better picture, there’s a sensation that this film is taking itself almost too seriously. Little fun is poked at in the fantastical world of talking shrooms, walking bombs, and big-lipped fishes. More comedy seems to come from recognizing game mechanics or mere references to Nintendo products. I’m sure some fan’s head will explode at trying to comprehend how Mario plays a Nintendo Entertainment System in his reality.
This movie gets all dolled up in its Nintendo attire and doesn’t have many places to go. As a result, much of the movie falls back on Illumination’s routine stagings. While the soundtrack has its highlights of featuring orchestral interpretations of notable Mario video game music, the bulk of the picture’s action segments is saddled with standard pop-culture music choices. This includes Kill Bill’s Battle Without Honor or Humanity being played for bad-ass fights and a predictable 1980s track for Mario’s training montage.
The Super Mario Bros Movie has small moments of charm amid a lukewarm story and the onslaught of Nintendo references toppled for fans. As much as some might like to claim that this film is better than the live-action film, it holds more in common with Nintendo’s The Wizard, a shameless commercial product meant to sell more products. Whether or not it ticks all the boxes for Mario fans depends on how long those fans will spend ticking all the boxes, taking more note of how many Mario characters they can spot in the background than anything meaningful going on in the foreground.