You can’t expect a lot out of a Mario movie, especially right out of the gate. Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic’s The Super Mario Bros. Movie stays true to the games in the narrative. Meaning, there really isn’t one. Simple amusement is what gamers go to Mario for and that’s exactly what the film is. But as it transitions into a new medium, there are both expectations and opportunities. The expectation is a good story because no movie can succeed with window dressing. While Mario has never been about its story, that doesn’t translate well to film and this offers the opportunity to expand upon its lore and characters in new ways. The directors and writer Matthew Fogel didn’t grab that opportunity this time around, but if it has its audience yelling “Yahoo!” on their way to the video game store, it did what it came to do.
The film opens with Bowser (Jack Black)’s fury. Power-hungry and lovestruck over Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy), he’s on the hunt to find the Super Star. With its invincible powers, he hopes to not only take over the world but impress Peach enough for her to agree to marry him. If she doesn’t agree, he’ll have no choice but destroy her home, Mushroom Kingdom. Knowing that Bowser is a threat to her and her precious Toads, Peach seeks to form an alliance with the Kong Army. She also finds an unlikely ally in a short, overalled, Brooklyn-Italian plumber named Mario (Chris Pratt), who is propelled into this world through a warp pipe.
It’s all very simple, but it’s also Mario. As said, there’s nothing much to expect in terms of narrative when speaking of the games. Franchise creator Shigeru Miyamoto has even stated that story and Mario never really mixed. In reference to Super Mario Galaxy’s plot, Wired’s Chris Kohler remarks in a 2009 interview with Miyamoto that it’s more than the “window dressing” we were used to. In response, Miyamoto explains that he likes to go with “as little story as possible.” “I’ve always felt that the Mario games themselves aren’t particularly suited to having a very heavy story, whereas the Zelda series is something that lends itself more naturally to that idea,” he says.
In that respect, The Super Mario Bros. Movie is very much the way Miyamoto likes it. However, a bare-bones story doesn’t translate well to film. Like video game cut scenes when you skip over dialogue, it moves quickly. So quickly that it all feels rushed. The film sticks to the simplicity of most of the games that just follow Bowser repeatedly kidnapping Peach and attacking her kingdom. While the latter is still true here, the film can be lauded for the fact that it takes a departure from the classic rescue-the-princess formula. But that’s really the only thing the film does to spice things up as Peach is the one who drives the story (or lack thereof) and propels the action forward. Mario hasn’t always just been about defeating an enemy and saving the day, either. Some plots of the games do have narrative heft to them. Take the poignant story of fatherhood between Bowser and his son in Super Mario Sunshine or Super Paper Mario’s meta take on gaming culture with a complex journey into heaven and hell for the characters and dark twists and turns. Mario hasn’t always been just silly, light-hearted fun, and while the film does incorporate the franchise’s darker elements – the Mushroom Kingdom is the poptastic side of Bower Castle’s metal tracklist – it doesn’t do anything plot-wise to impress.
The film does manage to stand out most with its characters, especially in the introduction of Mario and his brother Luigi (Charlie Day). We see them out in the human world, Brooklyn to be exact. Their Italian accents are only put on for a commercial to promote their new plumbing business. When fans heard the lack of Italian flavour in Chris Pratt’s voice for the first time, it caused a big uproar like Sonic’s teeth. Some even went so far as to dub Mario’s original voice over the trailer. Surprisingly, Pratt’s voice acting doesn’t turn out to be a distraction at all and he does a fine job. The same goes for Day in the Luigi role. Their voice performances make the characters easily recognizable. Mario is cheerful and courageous, while Luigi is still timid and scared in most situations (but shows great bravery in the end). Our introduction to the film versions of these iconic characters finds them struggling to get their plumbing business off the ground and make a name for themselves. When we finally see them get a gig, it serves as an excellent bit of slapstick with everything turning to chaos like Paddington in a bathroom. Seeing the brothers working together in the real world results in a desire to explore their bond more deeply; their life more deeply. We are given brief glimpses of them with their family and them as their Baby versions, but there’s a missed opportunity to bring more depth to their characters as we are quickly propelled right into the Mushroom Kingdom and the subsequent action.
Like the brothers, the supporting characters stand out, as well. This has a lot to do with the fantastic performances that give these characters new voices that fit perfectly. Who really steals the show is already obvious from just the trailers: Jack Black. He’s truly going all out and having a blast doing so – Bowser’s love ballad on the piano in the sky and all. The supporting characters are also familiar personality-wise but do feel to add a least something a little different to make them truly feel like the film versions of the blank slates in the video games. Bowser is still tyrannical but shows a softer side to his spiked shell; Princess Peach is still sweet but can pull a 180 and kick ass; Toad (an unrecognizable Keegan-Michael Key) is crafty and quick on his feet; Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen) makes it known that he can do more than smash barrels. As much as you want more for Mario and Luigi’s backstory, the same can be said for these characters and the lore in general. In fact, the film does hint at an interesting origin story for Peach but it’s forgotten as quickly as it’s brought up.
Despite a narrative that could have used a power-up or two, it’s still very much a Mario movie. It has more Easter eggs than the Easter Bunny has supply. And even if you’re just a casual fan who has only played Mario Kart, you’ll still find so much to love in its charming humour and first-rate animation. Like the games themselves, Illumination creates an expansive visual feast that makes you wish you lived in that world. It’s stunning work with some cool camera tricks up its sleeve, with certain scenes being filmed like the side-scroller games. The production design and character movements mimic that classic style of gameplay impressively. There’s tons of action and an epic Mario Kart sequence that not only shows the mechanics of picking your kart but racing as well, shells and all. While the film is plagued by a random, overused selection of ‘80s hits that don’t fit their scenes very well, its score with integrated themes and retro music and game cues add to its overall goal of just trying to be a fan crowd-pleaser. For a general audience, it’s proving to be just that and that’s fine. A first entry in a Mario franchise can afford to meet the expected, but if it doesn’t take a Super Mushroom for the potential sequel, this franchise won’t stay fun for long. The Spiny Shell is ready to launch.