The Super Mario Bros. Movie Review: Lets-a Not Go

There’s a moment in The Super Mario Bros. Movie in which big, destructive Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen) yells at his diminutive, overalls-wearing rival Mario (Chris Pratt) that he’s more than just a big guy who smashes stuff. If you’ve watched any animated films this century, it may induce serious deja vu — Disney already made two movies on this topic. Wreck-It Ralph and its sequel affectionately parodied the Donkey Kong and Mario titles, but they are also a lot smarter than the actual Mario movie based directly on the games.

Viewers who love to spot fan-service references may have a field day noting them all, and there’s plenty of time to do so when the plot’s as disengaging as it is here. The Easter eggs were clearly made and placed with love. But the movie is just a collection of Easter eggs and references in search of a story.

We never learn much more about Mario than that he likes to run, he never gives up, and he disappoints his father. Also, in a touch straight out of Robert Altman’s Popeye, he hates mushrooms. Luigi (Charlie Day) is delineated primarily by cowardice and clumsiness, which of course he will shake off by the time it matters.

Not entirely unlike the 1993 live-action movie in plot, the story sees Brooklyn plumbers Mario and Luigi entering another dimension via a magical sewer pipe. There they meet Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy), the benevolent human ruler of a kingdom of mushroom-people, and Bowser (Jack Black), a giant angry snapping turtle in a floating, lava-spewing castle, who wants to force Peach to marry him. Their hypothetical children, one imagines, would be some David Cronenberg-level nightmare fuel.

Children and inner-children from, let’s say, age 0-50, likely don’t need this premise explained. Former Donley Kong champion Billy Mitchell will turn 60 in a couple of years, and every generation of kids since has encountered Mario in some form, even if they don’t care for platforming games. In all of that time, surely somebody could have come up with a better movie plot then the slapped-together series of set pieces in this film.

There’s little regard even for internal logic. Initially, in Brooklyn, Mario shows his expertise in parkour and platform jumping in a realistic city a la Super Mario Odyssey. It’s a sequence full of wink-wink foreshadowing for fans, yet when he enters the Mushroom Kingdom and encounters similar obstacles, all of a sudden he’s terrible at it, and needs more practice than Peach apparently ever did.

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Though it’s clearly trying to be all things to all fans, it’s odd that The Super Mario Bros. Movie repeatedly mocks the broad Italian accent the plumber has in the games as an exaggerated put-on, settling for Chris Pratt’s normal voice with a mild Brooklyn accent most of the time. Black fares much better as Bowser, since he’s actually trying a different voice from his own — even the obligatory musical number he gets is an Elton John impersonation. Most inspired, however, is Juliet Jelenic as Lumalee, a cute glowing star with a counterintuitively morbid sensibility behind her helium voice.

For all the flack the 1993 movie gets, from its own cast above all, it had a genuine style and unique take that very much came from the directors, Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel. That, and its commitment to its weird, non-canonical choices, have kept it a cult movie decades later. The new movie has nothing like that. The designs are completely faithful to the games, but the story is less substantial than watching someone else play them. There’s no real sense of world exploration, or even why these characters like each other much.

Fans of all ages should at least appreciate the score the most, as Brian Tyler creates big, orchestral versions of every familiar Koji Kondo game theme you remember, and maybe even some you don’t. Less impressive: the pop songs drawn from Hollywood’s Obvious Choices 101 folder, like “Thunderstruck,” “Take on Me,” “No Sleep Till Brooklyn,” and “Holding out for a Hero,” which was just in Shazam! Fury of the Gods. Presumably the score can be bought and downloaded separately. If it’s cheaper than a movie ticket, maybe just buy that instead.

Kids young enough not to care about story should find ample fast-moving things to enjoy in The Super Mario Bros. Movie. Their parents may be able to subsequently sell them on the video games they once enjoyed, as a hand-me-down tradition. Almost everyone else will quickly tire of the disjointed story and surprisingly uninventive action (the best parts have all been shown in advance clips). There are mid-credits and post-credits scenes as well, but don’t get your hopes up for what they contain.

Not counting the 1986 anime, this is the second-best Super Mario Bros. movie. As the characters say onscreen, over and over again, “Mamma mia.”

Grade: 2/5

The Super Mario Bros Movie opens on Wednesday, April 5.

Recommend Reading: Super Mario Adventures

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