The story of The Super Mario Bros. on their journey through the Mushroom Kingdom.
Music: Brian Tyler (music by), Koji Kondo (original Nintendo themes by)
Cast: Chris Pratt, Anya Taylor-Joy, Charlie Day, Jack Black, Keegan-Michael Key, Seth Rogen, Fred Armisen, Kevin Michael Richardson, Sebastian Maniscalco
Directors: Aaron Horvath, Michael Jelenic
Writers: Matthew Fogel
Editing: Eric Osmond
The Mario games aren’t known for their story, so how do you adapt them to a movie? In the ’90s, this meant turning the Koopas into dinosaurs, and in 2023 it seems to have been set pieces first, references second, and plot third. It’s a bit of a mess, but this is a kids’ film, and I’m sure the target audience will love it even if it leaves older fans wishing for something more.
Usually, for Nintendo video games, you’d say the story is the weakest part and gameplay king. But you can’t make that translate to a movie. What we’ve ended up with instead is the most bare-bones plot necessary to drag Mario and Luigi into the Mushroom Kingdom. Mario (Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day) have just started their own independent plumbing business, their family thinks they’re both a bit of a joke, but one night while attempting to stop a massive leak in Brooklyn, they stumble upon a magic pipe that transports them to another galaxy. While Mario ends up in the Mushroom Kingdom, his brother ends up in the dark lands and soon in the clutches of Bowser (Jack Black). Soon Mario meets Toad (Keegan-Michael Key), who introduces him to Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy), who is about to ask the Kongs for help fighting Bowser, so Mario is invited along for the adventure.
The opening New York scenes were some of my favourites in the film. Before adventuring into the Mushroom Kingdom and the bumpy pacing of jumping from one scene to another, I was beginning to get invested in these brothers. Seeing them excited to do their first job and their family making fun of them, the bond between the two brothers was wholesome and endearing. New York felt lively too, and with real depth to its world. There’s even an inventive sequence early in the film here where the camera pans around to be side on, giving a video game-inspired angle as Mario and Luigi race on foot to their first job. However, like they’d left a valve loose somewhere, all of this drains from the movie quickly once they arrive in the Mushroom Kingdom.
As soon as Mario arrives in the world, he’s greeted by Toad, who within seconds agrees to help him get to Princess Peach and ask for help. And once he meets her, within seconds, she decides to consider his companionship, and shortly after, her sole — Toad sneaks aboard this journey — partner to ask the Kongs for help in fighting Bowser. It’s as if the movie is in a rush. Aside from one brief moment at a campfire, Peach, Mario, nor Toad share much of their feelings. Toad being an eccentric character is one thing. Still, Peach being the only human in the Mushroom Kingdom and Mario being a human would surely have made for a long moment to share between the two and maybe help blossom the romance game fans would be expecting, but as if by Nintendo’s rule, the romance between the two is stopped firmly at flirtations.
Soon enough, the film is at the doors of the Kongs, and Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen) is fighting Mario in a Smash Bros-inspired arena. And so joins another character, and one voiced by Rogan simply doing… Rogan.
It’s odd, but by far, Bowser is this movie’s most compelling character and presence. His motive for ruling the galaxies and marrying Princess Peach isn’t groundbreaking, but you can see him obsess over Peach as he confines himself with his minions. In one of the most memorable scenes in the film, he talks about Mario as a controlling boyfriend and shows his “love” for Peach in a way I didn’t expect from the character.
Part of what makes Bowser so good is the performance of Black, who puts on something of a deeper growl for his performance, even if he sometimes breaks into his usual Jack Black cadence. However, you can tell he was into the role and wanted to bring something to it and add more than what was on the paper. The same can’t be said for the rest of the cast. Pratt is inoffensive as Mario but entirely forgettable; Luigi is sidelined as he often is in the games, with Days performance being somewhat perfect for this; Key’s Toad is one-note and even Taylor-Joys Peach is disappointingly lacking in any genuine emotion and instead riding a wave of positive thoughts to the detriment of the character and actress.
I am a video game guy and a fan of the games, so I don’t want to say “for fans of the game,” as that includes me — but instead, I’ll say: for those looking for nothing but a nostalgia and easter egg hunt in time for Easter, you’ll be more than pleased with The Super Mario Bros. Movie. Each frame seems littered with references that’ll surely take several watches to catch them all. And then there are the most obvious ones, like the Mario Kart sequence, or that time the one Mario creature from that one game shows up on the screen for one second.
Most impressive, however, is how the music by Brian Tyler takes the original Mario songs by Koji Kondo and reinterprets them for the film. “The Underground” music plays subtly in the background as the brothers head into the New York sewers, the classic theme plays more than once, and there’s even some splicing in music from Luigi’s Mansion. You won’t have to spot these references on the scene — your ears will spike up every time they hear something.
With all my positive thoughts on the re-work of Mario Universe music, there are a lot of licensed songs in the film. I didn’t love them as much as I appreciate “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” or “Thunderstruck,” these songs were spread thin and seemed weird amongst the other Mario compositions, sticking out like sore thumbs.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie can be frozen and used as wallpaper in any frame. This is a gorgeous interpretation of the Mario Games universe. But without the joyous gameplay that made the franchise a household name, it’s reliant on triggering those feelings in the back of your mind because there’s no way these characters and plot would work independently. I left the cinema disappointed, not because I had built the film to be a massive success in my head before walking in, but because they had it right there at the start of the film. Instead of a good or great movie, it’s just an okay one. Maybe next time?