Video game adaptations are all the rage this spring – and are they actually…good? HBO The last of us premiered in January to critical acclaim, convincing naysayers that perhaps you can translate the interactive medium into a more passive space. But it’s the long awaited, The movie Super Mario Bros. (April 5) is both the genre’s most anticipated entry and its biggest test.
The reasons are obvious: Mario is the biggest game franchise in the world. Since its first appearance in 1981 donkey kong, the jumping plumber has appeared in over 200 games, with nearly a billion copies sold overall. Nintendo has just opened its second theme park attraction dedicated to the Mushroom Kingdom and its characters, it is the mark of a strong intellectual property.
Contrary to The last of uswho had prestige dramas to lean on, Mario Brothers. had a few more hurdles to clear before it could win over the Nintendo diehards. The games have a gigantic fan base, for one thing, which makes it impossible to please everyone. But there’s also the fact that Illumination Entertainment, America’s best-known studio for very boring Minions films, took care of it. Despite MinionsA massive box office hit and stronghold on young kids, wry TikTok teens and Facebook moms, Illumination was a pick that raised eyebrows for anyone over the age of 12.
And then there was the casting, with social media villain Chris Pratt winning the lead role over longtime Mario voice actor Charles Martinet. Picking an A-lister with dub credits to their name is an unsurprising choice, especially for a kids’ movie. But it’s already an uphill battle to get people on board with Hollywood actors for such iconic characters, who are best known for uttering catchphrases and grunts. Going with someone as maligned as Pratt… big yikes!
Perhaps the biggest question was whether the Mario series could even make sense as a feature film. The basic premise of any Mario game is worn: Mario must save Princess Peach from the clutches of the evil Bowser, traveling 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 was for writer Matthew Fogel and co-directors Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic (The Teen Titans Go!) to return to the beginning, creating an origin story for Mario and his brother Luigi (Charlie Day). Instead of being ordinary citizens of Mushroom Kingdom, Mario and Luigi are unlucky Brooklynites whose plumbing business isn’t growing the way they want. (Making Mario Bros. New Yorkers instead of stereotypical Italians was the right move, eliminating the problem of Pratt doing an awful accent.)
Their family – all humans, with creepy human hands! – does not believe in them and wants them to give it up. But the brothers get their chance to prove themselves when they discover a magical set of pipes in the sewers, which sends them into a whole different universe. But their journeys through the pipes have divided the boys, forcing Mario to set off on a journey to find his little brother with the help of his new friends Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Toad (Keegan-Michael Key).
Unfortunately, Luigi finds himself 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 seek help from the neighboring jungle kingdom, home of Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen) and Cranky Kong (Fred Armisen). But to win the Kongs, Mario will have to prove himself, which means he must learn to fight and navigate this magical world, building his confidence along the way.
And that’s… basically all there is. Super Mario Bros..’ The story is only slightly beefier than the average Mario game plot, a paint-by-numbers storyline that doesn’t rock the boat too much. For a movie whose source material doesn’t come with such a rich legacy, that would be more of a downside. Mario isn’t known for a specific canon or lore, which, while made painfully apparent here, also means there’s less chance of really pissing someone off. It’s disappointing that the film is so hazy story-wise, of course. But it would be worse if the film overcompensated for this weakness by dwelling on the typical traits of a mainstream, big-budget Hollywood children’s movie — think cursory pop culture references and bathroom jokes.
Fortunately, Super Mario Bros.. has none. There’s some laugh-worthy comedy interspersed, namely from Rogen and Black, of which DK and Bowser are essentially mouthpieces for their distinct senses of humor. (Black, for example, improvises love songs for Peach.) And while the jokes won’t upset adults, they won’t offend their taste either – and neither will the dubbing, which is thankfully harmless despite all the pre-release anxiety about whether American Pratt will suit Italian Mario. Instead, after the heavy-handed first act establishes the backstory, the film mostly becomes a playground for Nintendo’s action figures to do their thing, to its advantage.
Nintendo’s greatest franchise is most beloved not for its voice acting or its story, but for its spirit: a joyful sense of wonder, fun and imaginative possibility. And that’s what The movie Super Mario Bros. captures with aplomb. In fact, it’s perhaps the most accomplished portrayal of the true nature of a video game in recent memory, imbued with a kinetic energy and obvious affection for the franchise that is unmistakable to any fan.
Once you get past the awkwardness that creates Mario’s backstory, the movie focuses on the rhythm of classic games. There are beautifully directed sequences that mimic the balletic nature of a sidecroller, as Mario runs across platforms and climbs ladders. Combined with the fantastic art direction and animation, watching Super Mario Bros.. it’s like watching the highest definition Mario game in action.
The film’s greatest sets are all love letters to the franchise, from a beautiful Mario Kart race down an iconic road to an exciting battle between Mario and DK. Super Mario Bros. also obeys the fantastic logic of the games; Mario gobbles up colorful mushrooms to make them grow or shrink, and grabs a Fire Flower to launch fireballs at enemies. His surprise and excitement at unleashing these abilities mirrors ours – it’s like starting a new Mario entry for the first time, getting a feel for the gameplay. It’s clear that creator Shigeru Miyamoto, credited as producer, gave the film his blessing. All the Nintendo Easter Eggs strewn throughout add to the authenticity and fun, ranging from the obvious (World 1-1 signs) to the more obscure (Diskun!).
Super Mario Bros. is a film that takes into consideration the valid concerns of Nintendo loyalists, making up for its shortcomings by blasting the film with immeasurable heart. It may not offer much to turn game ignoramuses into full-fledged converts, but it offers enough for the millions of us who remain. Stunning visuals and exciting gameplay – what more could a Mario fan really need?
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