NOC Review: ‘The Super Mario Bros. Movie’ is Super Fun but Far From Invincible

In 1983, a spin off of the popular Donkey Kong arcade game hit arcades in Japan. That game was called Mario Bros., and featured the Jumpman hero of Donkey Kong, now named “Mario,” teaming up with his brother Luigi. The game became legend and 40 years later, the Super Mario Bros, as we know them today, are finally getting the big screen treatment they deserve (as I said before the 1993 movie doesn’t count). But is it the movie we deserve? Keep reading to see what we thought of The Super Mario Bros. Movie!

It’s the dawn of a new era for video game adaptations, folks. This year kicked off with the best video game adaptation of all time, The Last of Us. And even last year’s Sonic the Hedgehog 2 sped its way to the top of the box office and into our hearts. So it was only a matter of time before we got a proper Nintendo-produced movie based on the adventures of Mario and Luigi in the Mushroom Kingdom. And I’m happy to say that, though it’s not a game changer, The Super Mario Bros. Movie is still a lot of fun.

(from left) Mario (Chris Pratt), Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy), and Toad (Keegan-Michael Key) in Nintendo and Illumination’s The Super Mario Bros. Movie, directed by Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic.

The movie’s story centers on Mario, of course. He and Luigi are from Brooklyn, and have poured their savings into an independent plumbing company that’s just starting up. Everyone makes Mario, feel small, physically and emotionally, really taking his diminutive stature and literal pipe dreams as jokes. And his family believes he’s dragging Luigi down with him.

On a job, one day, he and Luigi get sucked into the world of the Mushroom Kingdom via a rogue warp pipe, and separated. Luigi immediately gets captured by Bowser and his army, who have just obtained a power star, and are planning to use it to force Peach’s hand in marriage and conquer the Mushroom Kingdom. While Mario arrives at the Mushroom Kingdom, seeking help to save his brother. It’s there he meets Peach, who is a headstrong leader looking to recruit the Kong army with Mario’s help, to stop Bowser, save her kingdom, and save Luigi.

I think there’s two ways of looking at this movie. If you want to be cynical, and rip this movie apart for being a cliched cash grab that ticks off boxes of “Mario” motifs, just for the sake of slapping it on merchandising, that is a valid opinion. But if you want to turn off your brain, just sit back and enjoy the fact that a Mario movie is delivering a Mario movie, and giving you Mario things in very fun ways, I think that’ll be the approach that helps you sleep better at night. I frankly chose the latter, because I knew how pandering a movie this was, but I also just didn’t care, and found myself having a good time!

The Super Mario Bros. Movie is a fantastic fireball of family fun that captures the spirit of the Mario legacy. I mean you just have to remember who the target demographic of this movie is: kids and parents. Not cynical critics in their 30s-40s. And from that perspective, families are going to eat up this movie. And yet, while many have said similar of a garbage heap of IP slinging like Space Jam: A New Legacy (which obviously I hated), The Super Mario Bros. Movie approaches its treatment of the source material differently, in that it treats the film as a celebration rather than a commercial. And I think that’s the difference.

Yes you get Donkey Kong, and yes you get Mario Kart. But these are the types of elements that can be plausibly woven into the fabric of this movie because the creators are celebrating the legacy of the universe they’ve built from Donkey Kong to Mario Kart. Versus a Space Jam 2 situation where you get Matrix and Game of Thrones references woven into a Looney Tunes universe for no reasons other than to promote HBO Max. And that’s where any semblance of cynicism I had within me stopped.

Knowing Shigeru Miyamoto was involved as a producer and that Nintendo oversaw Illumination’s creation of the movie made me aware enough to realize that all of what I was seeing on screen was Miyamoto’s tribute to the characters and worlds he built. Which is something I really want to implore people to remember as they’re watching the movie. Because you can look at this as a perfunctory exercise in Nintendo and Universal’s attempts to build a cinematic franchise as fast as possible. But the minute you see Mario flying around in a racoon suit, and beating on goombas, how could that not put a smile on your face?

That’s what this movie was for me. It was a joyful exercise in putting together these fun elements we love from the games on big screen for the first time. Did all of it need to be here? Maybe not. But from the beginning of the movie, with Mario’s training in a very NES-looking course, to the final battles which give nods to Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario 64, I couldn’t help myself in just smiling and enjoying. The action in this movie is very good! Mario’s training session, his fight with Donkey Kong, the obligatory Mario Kart scene (more on that below), and especially the final battles are so much fun! And the music, courtesy of Brian Tyler, pays tribute to the main, iconic music from the games, in a grand, epic way that evokes only feelings of positivity as the movie progresses, filling me with joy all over! Does that make me an easily amused child? Sure! But that’s what playing Mario has always been about, ever since we were easily amused children!

What does, however, threaten to cancel out the Nintendo fun are the Illumination issues. In a movie that has the potential to be a slam dunk, the Illumination bits try and rear their ugly heads with moments that sadly make you feel like a by-the-numbers story from the guys who brought us Minions and The Secret Life of Pets — annoying movies that infantilize their audiences with pop culture references and out-of-place pop song queues.

They try to do similar things in The Super Mario Bros. Movie, from the random inclusion of songs like A-Ha’s “Take On Me.” Then there’s the forced “little guy vying for his father’s acceptance” subplot that comes a bit out of nowhere and really doesn’t need to be in a movie like this at all. There’s also some pretty bad attempts at humor with really obvious jokes that fall flat. The writing is definitely something to be desired. Events go from one set piece to the other without really time to build out the story a bit better.

It all threatens to turn a pleasant Mario tribute into every boring easy-win churned out by the studio trying to be “hip” when the idea of a Mario movie is fun enough. It simply astonishes me that in an age of Into the Spider-Verse and Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio, Illumination has not learned to tell more profound stories, the way its Universal counterpart, Dreamworks has, with films like Puss in Boots: The Last Wish. But thankfully my love for Mario and the fun set pieces course correct what could have been a disaster.

Now let’s get to the the most controversial aspect of this movie: the voice acting. Honestly, I dug it! I know Chris Pratt was no one’s ideal Mario. And people were trying to automatically write off the performance from the few seconds of voice they got in various trailers. But as the filmmakers and cast have cited, this is a Mario story about Mario and Luigi being Brooklyn plumbers. Brooklyn! And given the familial context of these brothers being part of a Brooklyn-Italian family, Pratt’s decisions make sense, and they work!

Yes, prepare to throw the stones at me for saying I was very satisfied with the vocal performance, because Pratt was actually trying hard to nail a New York accent, and within the context of the character it was fine. Traditionalists, I’m sure, will find it weird. But I think in this case, it’s definitely worth it to try and remember this is a different story and medium from the games. And to be honest, there’s even a moment in the very beginning where he does try out the game voice, and showcases he can actually do it. So you know it’s a choice and direction that was consciously done for the story, and it’s perfectly fine.

Mario as a character is a lot of fun. It’s a bit of an origin story in many ways, showcasing how Mario goes from being a small-time New York plumber who heroically cares for his brother, to the mushroom pounding hero we see in the games. Again the father-son subplot they try to shoehorn in really doesn’t need to be added, but it was pretty minor. But overall, him growing into the hero the Mushroom Kingdom needs was fun to see.

The rest of the cast is actually also stellar. Anya Taylor-Joy’s Peach is actually one of the film’s biggest MVPs. She’s tough, kind, and regal — everything Peach should be. And her action sequences and fighting spirit are pretty terrific highlights! It works better for her character to be a leader and not a damsel in distress, and I’m glad they made the changes we got here. Her relationship with Mario is also pretty sweet, and it’s nice we also get a bit of backstory that I’m sure we’ll see in future movies.

Keegan Michael-Key and Charlie Day are also spot on as Toad and Luigi, but I will admit, I wish we got more of them. Toad is adorable and funny thanks to Key’s pitch perfect performance, and there was so much potential to explore more of him, but they don’t really get to. Luigi is also not explored as deeply as he should be. It would be nice if, in future installments, we put the spotlight on the underrated sibling. His arc is essentially one in which he’s been defended by his brother all his life, and he has to find the courage to finally return the favor. So he really shines at the end. But through most of the movie he’s really just trapped in a cage, cowering. Day’s performance though is pretty perfect. It feels incredibly natural coming out of the character, and we’d love to see more of him in future installments!

The scene stealer of the entire film, however, is the King of Koopas himself, Jack Black as Bowser. Black is hilarious, injecting every fiber of his energy into the performance without ever compromising a voice that sounds like Bowser’s voice. It’s the perfect infusion of character and actor where neither is sacrificed and the performance of the actor actually does enhance the character. Bowser in this is a lovelorn dictator who is angry and cruel, but also hilariously vulnerable in his smitten demeanor.

The moments where Bowser begins singing love songs for Peach in a very Jack Black way had me giggling so hard, giving us something new and funny without ever compromising the direction of this character. I also must give credit to the amazing Kevin Michael Richardson, who is also funny, but completely unrecognizable as Kamek, Bowser’s wizard henchman. Those familiar with Richardson’s work know how deep his voice is. So for us to hear what he did in this movie is simply astonishing.

There’s a portion of this movie that takes place in Kong Country, and we get to meet several members of the Donkey Kong franchise, which obviously makes sense given the connection between the Donkey Kong and Mario characters. And that’s where we meet Seth Rogen’s Donkey Kong, who is actually also pretty perfect. Rogen brings a very laid back interpretation of the character, that’s incredibly “Seth Rogen.” But it works!

We get a lazy champion of the Kongs who shares both a rivalry and something of a kinship with Mario, which is pretty spot on. They’re both heroes, but true to the games, they started out as enemies. The set pieces with them both are pretty terrific from their fight in the middle of the movie, to their team ups escaping the inside of a giant eel, and the final battle where we actually get to see DK power up with a fire flower. Rogen sells that tension between himself and Pratt quite beautifully, and it’s exciting seeing DK play the hero side-by-side with Mario.

That being said, the second act is where the movie loses a bit of steam before picking up again in the final act. It’s where critics will, I think, find the most issue because they throw out Mario and Donkey Kong Easter eggs for really no real purpose. It just so coincidentally happens that everyone in the kingdom of the Kongs drives go-karts. And it’s very transparent that they’re going to set you up for a Mario Kart set piece. And there’s nothing wrong with that, per se, but it really disrupts the flow of the “save Luigi from Bowser” story.

It’s fun enough to see the DK Easter eggs and to see Mario Kart, but none of it was really needed for this narrative, and it definitely was shoehorned in for fan service purposes. It’s the moment of the movie where I started to feel like, as fun as this is, it also could have been saved for future installments, because they were doing it just for the sake of doing it without purpose. They don’t bother or care to explain why the Kongs have go-karts, or why anyone needs the go-karts, or why Rainbow Road exists. And it feels like it’s in here because they just want to sell toys. Again, this is the part of the film where it’s easiest to feel cynical about it.

That being said, once Bowser invades the Mushroom Kingdom, and the story picks up again, the movie enters an enthralling final act, that also includes various Easter eggs from Mario lore, but much more within context and without distracting the action. In the background we see some iconic characters like King Boo and King Bob-omb, We get an excellent Bullet Bill chase sequence! We get fire balls, Tanooki suits, invincibility, tail whipping; all of the classic tropes, but with actual context. And this part of the movie was the strongest, because the movie stopped trying to focus on bad jokes or toy lines, and just focused on being a Mario movie. And it leaves you smiling and wanting to see more, much like playing the games, because of how much fun it was.

And at the end of the day, that is what matters the most. The movie just needed to be fun for Nintendo and Mario fans, and it was. It doesn’t need to be Shakespeare, or an Oscar winner. It simply needed to be a Mario movie, and it nails that. Its carefree, child-like spirit reminds us of why we love the games, and why the legacy of this franchise has endured for 40 years. Now granted, could this have been a better movie? Absolutely. Putting it in the hands of Illumination definitely hurt it, leading to a very basic cliched story, a bit of flat obvious humor, and shoehorned fan-service. But by the end of it all, just like in the games, Mario, Luigi, Peach, Donkey Kong, and especially Bowser, along with a terrific score, and some really fun set pieces, ultimately save the day.

Overall Score: B

The Super Mario Bros. Movie hits theaters tomorrow, April 5!

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