In terms of video game icons, it doesn’t get any bigger than Mario.
Since 1981, Nintendo’s Italian plumber has won the hearts of millions with his charming adventures, eclectic roster of supporting characters and top-notch gameplay experiences spanning everything from platforming, racing and golf to soccer, fighters and even horror. “There’s probably not a single person who doesn’t know Mario. He’s that famous,” explains Colonel Roy Campbell rather aptly to Snake, another video game legend, in a delightful Metal Gear easter egg in Super Smash Bros. Brawl.
Surely, then, that would mean he’s due for a good movie, right? One that’s worthy of the legacy of the best-selling video game franchise of all time? Sadly, that isn’t the case with Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic’s The Super Mario Bros. Movie, the long-awaited animated take on the beloved gaming hero. After the atrocious 1993 live-action Super Mario Bros. film, Nintendo and Illumination have understandably gone for a far more faithful interpretation of the Mario series, but unfortunately, that reverence ends up being its fatal flaw.
Indeed, The Super Mario Movie is, at the end of the day, just an animated recreation of the Leonardo DiCaprio pointing meme from Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. From Mario’s specific jumps and twirls and Princess Peach’s Mario Kart hoverbike to the “DK Rap” from Donkey Kong 64 and green warp pipes galore, pretty much everything on screen at any given moment is meant to remind you of Nintendo’s rich games catalogue. Of course, it’s only natural to want some of that in a Mario movie, and it helps that Illumination renders it all through such crisp, detailed and visually stunning animation. That’s to say nothing of composer Brian Tyler, whose arrangements of Koji Kondo’s classic Mario themes are nothing short of incredible.
But fan service is a lot like sugar — nice and sweet in moderation, but deadly in high doses. And really, there’s very little to The Super Mario Bros. Movie beyond its near-overwhelming levels of winks and nods that feel meticulously chosen to pander to gamers’ nostalgia. The story, in which Mario (Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day) find themselves lost in a mysterious land threatened by the villainous Bowser (a genuinely excellent Jack Black), is as basic as it gets. That in itself isn’t a problem, as the plot is hardly the most important thing in a story so long as the characters are compelling.
But The Super Mario Bros. Movie feels like a grab bag of thin sketches of familiar faces from the games through which the filmmakers can wring the dullest and most obvious bits of humour. Let’s have a running gag about Mario hating mushrooms because in the games he eats a lot of them! Haha, get it? Luigi is often regarded as playing second fiddle to Mario, so let’s have him be captured and absent for most of the movie because we don’t know what else to do with him beyond a brief Luigi’s Mansion homage. Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy) used to be a damsel in distress, so let’s have her be an exceptionally skilled warrior now.
That latter point actually would be a positive, as it’s a solid, forward-thinking update on the tired “save the princess” trope, if not for the fact that the film also decides to render Mario a bumbling idiot who’s completely irrelevant for most of the runtime. And instead of mining any meaningful character growth from the actually intriguing idea of Mario’s fallibility, the filmmakers simply give Mario a training montage set to “Holding Out for a Hero” in one of the movie’s many unbelievably trite and uninspired needle drops, among other underwhelming character moments.
That also feeds into the movie’s largest issue — it’s pretty shallow. It should go without saying that even “kids’ animated movies” have some sort of overarching theme, a moral or arc that defines our character. Pixar’s Toy Story series digs into existentialism through the lens of sentient toys. Studio Ghibli’s Kiki’s Delivery Service unpacks the stresses and burnout associated with growing up. Dreamworks’ Puss in Boots: The Last Wish leans into the fact that the Shrek franchise is old by weaving a gorgeously animated yarn about mortality. Even a lesser Disney movie, like the recent Strange World, at least goes for a story about a reconnecting father and son. The Super Mario Bros. Movie, however, is too content with breezing through video game iconography at a breakneck pace to even attempt to do anything more with it. The movie introduces the flimsiest shred of an arc — Mario and Luigi feeling like unsuccessful losers and discovering self-worth — but does absolutely nothing with it.
Now, I’ve noticed some go-to responses to these kinds of criticisms. “Well, the Mario games don’t really have a story,” you might say. “It’s just a kid’s movie!” some others have argued. But to me, such statements are a tad bit insulting to both Nintendo’s wondrous games and the limitless potential of animation as a medium. First, the fact that the Mario games are historically light on narrative and three-dimensional characters shouldn’t be an excuse for the film to do the same. Gaming is defined by interactivity; you don’t need to have a strong story in Mario because the appeal is the tight, well-crafted platforming. Cinema, on the other hand, is a completely passive medium that can’t rely on clever gameplay mechanics, so it needs to do something different. This is actually something The Last of Us series creators Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin wisely understood when they toned down the action — which was necessary for the original 15-hour third-person shooter game — to focus more on character and world-building.
That’s the hallmark of a good adaptation — translating what works about the source material and making necessary changes elsewhere. And The Last of Us is hardly the only good example. The Sonic the Hedgehog games aren’t exactly known for deep stories and characters, but that didn’t stop director Jeff Fowler from delivering two fun movies centred around a surprisingly touching found family story — with some original characters, no less. In Arcane, Fortiche gives us an affecting standalone story of sisters Vi and Jinx that also expanded the popular universe of League of Legends. Rob Letterman’s Pokémon: Detective Pikachu injects the universal love and nostalgia we’ve all had for going on monster-catching adventures into a heartfelt original coming-of-age story for Trainer Tim. In all of these game adaptations, the source material was a way to enhance everything else; it wasn’t used as a crutch like it is in The Super Mario Bros. Movie. Fans could appreciate those added referential nuggets, but everyone could still enjoy the work as a whole. In many of these cases, we’re not even talking about some ground-breaking, world-class writing, which isn’t what anyone legitimately expected from Mario — just, you know, something decent.
Hell, let’s go beyond the world of game adaptations and look at another animated movie based on a popular property in which Chris Pratt voices a blue-collar protagonist with confidence issues in a big city: The Lego Movie. This could have easily been nothing but a toy commercial, but the ever-brilliant Phil Lord and Christopher Miller opted for a thoughtful, sincere tale about an everyman discovering what makes him special while still including some fun pop-culture cameos. The fact that the movies share some concepts and talent — most notably, The Super Mario Bros. Movie was also penned by The Lego Movie: The Second Part co-writer Matthew Fogel — only further highlights the comparative lack of imagination in Illumination’s film.
Likewise, the notion that The Super Mario Bros. Movie “is for kids” feels so disingenuous. Since when does something that’s suitable for kids have to solely be for them? Such an insinuation feels woefully dismissive of the countless quality animated pictures that have come along in the past few decades that have universal appeal. Pixar’s Inside Out tackles the volatile emotions of a pre-teen girl in a way that hits close to home for kids and adults alike. Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away unpacks greed and consumerism with nuance and care without being impenetrable for children. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse mixes a heavily stylized comic book aesthetic with a heartfelt story about everyone’s capacity for good that resonates with us all. I could go on.
Was I expecting The Super Mario Bros. Movie to be on the level of the animated classics I’ve mentioned? Certainly not. And despite what some have hilariously suggested, those critical of The Super Mario Bros. Movie aren’t some hateful cynics who expected some Scorsese-level Oscar-worthy movie. Undoubtedly, kids will certainly love this movie, which is great, and if you still enjoyed it for what it was, more power to you! But why is it such a crime for others to ask for more?
As mentioned, Mario is the rare property that transcends age and genre to connect with everyone, a timeless icon that will continue to be loved by generations to come. The magic of Nintendo’s games is that they simultaneously strike that “family-friendly” line while retaining depth and ingenuity. There’s a reason why the Mario games consistently rank among the highest-rated and best-selling the year they release, and that all comes down to Nintendo’s constant drive for creativity and inventiveness. They really are super. The Super Mario Bros. Movie, on the other hand, only aims to be safe and inoffensive, resulting in a painfully bland work that does a huge disservice to gaming’s most beloved series.
Header image credit: Illumination
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