The Super Mario Bros. Movie Review: Cinematic Redemption or Another Misfire?
The Super Mario Bros. Movie (2023): A redemption for Mario on the big screen. With an impressive cast and imaginative storytelling, this CGI family film delivers heart, humor, and nostalgic Nintendo references. A fun and visually stunning experience hinting at a promising future for Nintendo films.
April 15, 2023
By: Mike Alexander
For a franchise that has become a part of the very fabric of pop culture over the past forty years, you would think that Super Mario Bros. would have a cinematic career as successful as their video game presence by now. Alas, prior to 2023, all we had to show for Nintendo’s dynamic duo was an ill-fated live-action film that most people know about not because they have actually seen it, but because of the legacy of terrible filmmaking, it carries.
Seriously, look at this. This is supposed to be a Goomba. Goombas are mushrooms, guys. Not reptilian monstrosities.
For a long time (since 1993), this was all Mario fans had if they wanted some cinematic Mario content. It…was a pretty bad time. BUT! Nintendo’s team-up with Universal Studios in 2016 didn’t just bring us the wonderful Super Nintendo World parks in Japan, Hollywood, and soon Orlando (I can’t wait!!!). No, that partnership also forged a relationship between Nintendo and Universal’s CGI family film studio Illumination, the same studio behind the minions and Despicable Me. After several years of development, controversy, and hype, that movie is finally here. Was it worth the wait, and was Chris Pratt really a terrible choice to voice Mario?
*Spoilers may be dropped here for those who care about that*
Worth The Wait?
To answer my previous questions, yes, the movie was worth the wait. And no, Chris Pratt was… fine—Inoffensive even, just as most of the cast was. Chris Pratt as Mario, Charlie Day as Luigi, Anya Taylor-Joy as Princess Peach, and DEFINITELY Seth Rogen as Donkey Kong all used their own voices for their characters, so there wasn’t any extra characterization going on there. The only real standouts regarding their voice performance were Jack Black as Bowser (who is incredible in this) and Fred Armisen as Cranky Kong, who I had to look up after the movie because I couldn’t place his voice despite being a fan of his. He was embodying the character that well.
The only part where you hear any actors doing what many would consider to be the actual video game voices is at the beginning of the movie, for a minute. Chris Pratt and Charlie Day do convincing renditions of the character’s Italian accents but then immediately drop them, and it’s played for a joke that I think landed pretty well. Especially as Charles Martinet, the “real” voice of Mario, was there to deliver the punchline.
You see, the plumbers we know, and love needed a real, grounded story before we could get to the Mushroom Kingdom shenanigans. So, in this movie, they are brothers who own a fledgling plumbing business in Brooklyn, New York, and they live with their rather large family. Seeing the family was pretty jarring, but it served a narrative purpose that gave the movie a heart and soul. Mario’s family belittles him and says he’s bringing his little brother Luigi down with him on a whim that won’t go anywhere.
So when his drive to do something great does, in fact, leave Luigi separated and in a dangerous place (Bowser’s Kingdom, also referred to as “The Dark Lands”), Mario feels personally responsible. Even through all of the jokes and fun, Mario continues to struggle with being a failure, but he keeps getting up and trying again because his little brother needs him. I don’t know how well that concept landed with everyone else, but as an older brother with a younger brother who I love very dearly, I thought this aspect of the movie was great and got me misty-eyed more than once.
The film moves along at a pretty solid pace, which is good because some scenes either don’t work or are just forgettable. There’s a curious littering of recognizable licensed songs that feels weird for a franchise with so many iconic songs and musical riffs, few of which were actually used. If you listen closely, you can hear some recognizable themes woven into the ambient music, but music from the games takes center stage only a few times I can remember. The rest of the time, you’re forced to endure things like “Take On Me” for the millionth time in a movie laid over what should have been a reasonably exciting introduction to the Kong’s Kingdom.
The way Mario Kart was injected into the movie by having the Kongs customize and build karts for each character was fantastically imaginative and brought to life on screen in a way that filled me with childlike wonder. It was exceptionally well done down to the rotating dials to select the Kart, Wheels, and Glider.
The other new stuff Illumination introduces to the Mario universe mainly works, such as explaining why Princess Peach is the only other human in the Mushroom Kingdom, and Pauline is the mayor of Brooklyn. Still, the way the directors Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenik interpret the core Mario lore is where the real good stuff is.
Bowser putting on a big, scary face outwardly to his army, but really being a hopelessly romantic, terribly misguided dope on the inside is genius, and his song about how cool Princess Peach is and how badly he wants to marry her is worth more than one guffaw. Even more impressive is how Jack Black manages the transition between these two very different sides of the same character.
Similarly, seeing Mario attempt the same stage what might be several hundred times (again, to the sound of a licensed track, this time “I Need a Hero”) will hit home with anyone who has attempted to complete some of the player creations in Mario Maker.
I’m not ignorant of the consensus of the movie among older fans. As an adult, do I think The Super Mario Bros. Movie stands up to other CGI family film greats like Kung Fu Panda or anything from Pixar? Well, no, Illumination isn’t really on that level yet. However, The Super Mario Bros. Movie is a lot of fun, flat-out gorgeous, and chock-full of Nintendo references that will keep older fans happy if they go into the movie to give it a chance.
Overall, it’s a good place to start, and with the current box office count just about a week into its theatrical run, you can bet that there will be many more Mario and Nintendo films coming our way very soon.
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