It's hard to believe that there has never been an animated film featuring Mario and his brother Luigi, until now. "The Super Mario Bros. Movie" doesn't have the "coolness" or cutting-edge appeal as, say, "The LEGO Movie" did, and it wasn't quite as fun as the recent "Sonic The Hedgehog" film, but it's a mildly enjoyable, family-friendly adventure that does just enough to make it feel like a success.
Mario is one of the most well-known and recognizable fictional characters of all-time, worldwide, having first appeared in the arcade game, "Donkey Kong" back in 1981. He has since appeared in over 200 video games and is without-a-doubt the most popular video game character and franchise ever. How has he not yet helmed a film-franchise? Nintendo has waited over 40 years to finally give us this definitive version (we will all try to forget the massive disaster-turned-cult-classic, the live-action 1993 film, "Super Mario Bros." starring Bob Hoskins, John Leguizamo and Dennis Hopper. Hey, it was the 90s...).
The movie appeals to children and adults alike, featuring a very clean, colorful and sleek animation style courtesy of Illumination Studios (who brought us previous films like "Despicable Me," "Sing" and "The Secret Life of Pets"). Despite the wondrous color palette on display, it achieves the bare-minimum when it comes to inventiveness or purpose...not just in story, but in character development and dialogue.
For example, even "Despicable Me" contains a character arc for its protagonist. Everyone in "The Super Mario Bros. Movie" pretty much leaves the film the same way they entered. There are some very flimsy and under-cooked themes of brotherhood and teamwork, but there's very little "there" there when it comes to teachable lessons for youngsters.
That's all good though. It isn't like the Super Mario games themselves were full of wisdom and education. Mostly, it took a beloved character and sent him on a journey across excitingly weird new lands, where his goal was simple: Save the Princess at all costs.
But this is no longer 1981, it's 2023, so this Princess Peach (voiced by the lovely Anya Taylor-Joy) does not need saving. Mario (Chris Pratt) and his slimmer, taller and greener brother, Luigi (Charlie Day) get sucked into the magical world of The Mushroom Kingdom through a magical green pipe that they find deep below New York City. They're instantly separated, and they must reunite and find their way home. Mario is befriended by Toad (Keegan-Michael Key), who vows to take Mario to the Princess's Castle. But little do they know that the dastardly Bowser - King Koopa himself (Jack Black) - is in the process of taking over The Mushroom Kingdom, in an effort to make Princess Peach his wife...a twisted vision of romance indeed.
The Princess takes Mario with her as she tries to persuade the Kong Kingdom to help lend a hand in their upcoming battle against Bowser. That's where they meet Mario's original nemesis, Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen) and Cranky Kong (Fred Armisen). It doesn't quite matter that the Kong army does nothing, and makes no impact on the battle...it's the journey that counts.
Along the way are several Easter Eggs, musical cues and treats that will satisfy most anyone who has had even a casual relationship with the Mario games over the past several decades. The peril is watered-down so that even young children should be fine (my six-year-old wasn't scared even once), but there aren't quite as many laughs as there should be. That's where a dialogue punch-up (Punch-Out?) would have been nice.
There's too many stretches where nothing cool is happening, or we're just witnessing characters wander around aimlessly. In some ways, I guess that's an appropriate recreation of my video game experiences...it brought me back to my time as a co-pilot watching my older cousin play games like Zelda and Mario while I would have my latest issue of Nintendo Power folded out on my lap, helping him along. Still, it was always more fun to actually be playing.
This movie doesn't quite immerse the viewer in ways that are meaningful. And to once again draw comparisons to "The LEGO Movie," "The Super Mario Bros. Movie" includes a lot of Mario and Nintendo history, without ever really tugging at those nostalgic heartstrings in the way that "The LEGO Movie" so successfully did.
I liked Jack Black's take on Bowser, a hopeless romantic more than a world-crushing supervillain. But there was not enough of him. It's OK that the villain doesn't learn anything (they seldom do), but it's too bad they couldn't have come up with something more for any of the other main characters. True to their video game versions, they are simply there to drive the action. Even "Paw Patrol: The Movie" gives its main character Chase, a backstory, and some things to overcome on his way to becoming a hero once again. So I don't buy the argument that this is "just a movie for kids," as if kids can't handle a 1 out of 100 on the complexity scale. If The Paw Patrol can do it, so can you, Nintendo.
One thing that does come across though, is that it's clear that the voice-talent and the filmmakers all love Mario and company just as much as the fandom. "The Super Mario Bros. Movie" is destined to be a hit, and it can't even be measured how much better this version is than that loathsomely terrible 1993 version.
Family-friendly films in general have become scarce at movie theaters, so it's comforting to know that folks will have something to do, somewhere to go...and there's no doubt that this film will be a massive, massive box office smash.
Stay through the credits for not one but two end credit scenes...The Mario Bros. may have finally arrived, but there are big plans in store for this "Nintendo Cinematic Universe" and so, so, so much content still to uncover.
Genre: Animation, Adventure, Comedy, Family.
Run Time: 1 hour 32 minutes.
Starring (voices of): Chris Pratt, Charlie Day, Anya Taylor-Joy, Jack Black, Keegan-Michael Key, Fred Armisen, Seth Rogen, Charles Martinet.
Directed by Aaron Horvath & Michael Jelenic ("Teen Titans GO! To the Movies").
"The Super Mario Bros. Movie" is in theaters on Wednesday, April 5th, 2023.
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