Video game adaptations are trending this spring — and are they actually… good? HBO’s The last of us premiered in January to critical acclaim, convincing naysayers that perhaps the interactive medium could be translated into a more passive space. But it’s the long awaited The Super Mario Bros. Movie (April 5th), this is both the most anticipated entry into the genre and its greatest test.
The reasons are obvious: Mario is the largest gaming franchise in the world. Since its first appearance in the 1981s Donkey Kong, the jumping plumber appeared in more than 200 games and has sold almost a billion copies. Nintendo just opened its second theme park attraction dedicated to the Mushroom Kingdom and its characters – that’s the sign of a strong IP.
not how The last of usthe prestige drama Bonafides had to lean on, Mario brothers. had a few additional hurdles to overcome before it could win over Nintendo diehards. For one thing, the games have a massive following, making it impossible to please everyone. But there’s also the fact that Illumination Entertainment, the American studio best known for it, is very annoying minions movies, it was dealt with. Despite minions‘ Massive box office success and stronghold of young kids, tongue-in-cheek TikTok teens and Facebook moms, Illumination was an eyebrow-raising choice for anyone over the age of 12.
And then there was the casting, where social media villain Chris Pratt won the lead role over Mario’s longtime voice actor, Charles Martinet. Choosing an A-lister with a voice actor to his name is an unsurprising choice, especially for a children’s film. But it’s been an uphill battle getting people on board with Hollywood actors for such iconic characters who are best known for uttering catchphrases and grunts. To go with someone as vilified as Pratt… big yikes!
Perhaps the biggest question of all was whether the Mario series could even make sense as a full-length movie. The basic premise of any Mario game is flimsy: Mario must rescue Princess Peach from the clutches of the evil Bowser and travel through increasingly treacherous worlds to do so. Dialogue and character development are minimal. How the hell is this supposed to be a movie?
The solution for writer Matthew Fogel and co-directors Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic was (Teen Titans go!) to return to the beginning and create an origin story for Mario and his brother Luigi (Charlie Day). Instead of being regular citizens of Mushroom Kingdom, Mario and Luigi are hapless Brooklynites whose plumbing business isn’t doing the way they want it to. (Doing the Mario Bros. New Yorkers instead of the stereotypical Italians was the right move to get rid of the problem of Pratt doing a terrible accent.)
Your family – all people with creepy human hands! – doesn’t believe in them and wants them to give up. But the brothers get their chance to prove themselves when they discover a magical pipe system in the sewers that sends them to an entirely different universe. But their trips through the pipes separate the boys, forcing Mario to go in search of his little brother with the help of his new friends Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Toad (Keegan-Michael Key).
Unfortunately, Luigi ends up in the clutches of Bowser (Jack Black), who wants to marry Peach and take over Mushroom Kingdom. He will burn anyone who dares stand in his way with the help of his magical sidekick Kamek (Kevin Michael Richardson) and an army of Koopas. To take on Bowser’s troops, Peach, Mario and Toad enlist the help of the neighboring Jungle Kingdom, home of Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen) and Cranky Kong (Fred Armisen). But to win over the Kongs, Mario must prove himself – which means learning how to fight and navigate this magical world, while building his confidence in the process.
And that’s… basically all there is. Super Mario Bros.’ The story is only slightly beefier than the average Mario game’s plot, a paint-by-numbers scenario that doesn’t shake the boat too much. However, for a film whose source material doesn’t have such a storied legacy, that would be more of a scam. Mario isn’t known for any specific canon or lore, which while it’s painfully obvious here, also means there’s less chance of really pissing anyone off. It’s definitely disappointing that the film feels so thin on a story level. But it would be even worse if the film overcompensated for that weakness by applying the hallmarks of a big-budget, mainstream Hollywood children’s film — think shallow pop-culture references and bathroom jokes.
Thank God, Super Mario Bros. has none of it. There’s some snickering comedy sprinkled throughout, namely by Rogen and Black, whose DK and Bowser are essentially mouthpieces for their keen sense of humor. (Black, for example, improvises some love songs for Peach.) And while the jokes won’t blow adults away, they won’t offend their tastes either — and neither will the voice acting, which for all knowledge is happily harmless. Get rid of worries about whether American Pratt will be a match for Italian Mario. Instead, after the cerebral first act establishes the backstory, the film mostly becomes a playground for Nintendo action figures to do their thing to their advantage.
Nintendo’s biggest franchise isn’t loved most for its voice acting or story, but for its spirit: a joyful sense of wonder, fun and imaginative possibility. And that’s what The Super Mario Bros. Movie catches with sovereignty. In fact, it’s perhaps the most accomplished portrayal of the actual nature of a video game in recent memory, imbued with kinetic energy and a clear affection for the franchise that is undeniable to any fan.
Once you get past the awkwardness that a backstory conjures up for Mario, the film focuses on nailing the rhythm of classic games. There are beautifully staged sequences that mimic the balletic nature of a sidescroller as Mario walks across platforms and climbs ladders. Combined with the fantastic art direction and animation, watch Super Mario Bros. is like seeing the highest definition Mario game in action.
The film’s greatest set pieces are all love letters to the franchise, from a beautiful Mario Kart-esque race to a legendary road to a gripping fight between Mario and DK Super Mario Bros. also obeys the fantasy logic of the games; Mario devours colorful mushrooms to grow or shrink and grabs a Fire Flower to shoot fireballs at enemies. His surprise and excitement at unleashing these abilities mirrors our own – it’s like starting a new Mario entry for the first time and getting a feel for the gameplay. It’s clear that producer-credited creator Shigeru Miyamoto gave the film his blessing. All of the Nintendo Easter Eggs scattered throughout add to the authenticity and fun, from the obvious (World 1-1 Characters) to the more obscure (Diskun!).
Super Mario Bros. is a film that addresses the legitimate concerns of Nintendo fans and makes up for its weaknesses by making the film explode with heart immeasurable. It might not offer much to turn gaming ignoramuses into full-fledged converts, but it offers enough for the remaining millions of us. Gorgeous graphics and exciting gameplay – what more does a Mario fan really need?
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