A film review by Craig J. Koban July 17, 2023

THE SUPER MARIO BROS. MOVIE j
 

2023, PG, 93 mins.

Chris Pratt as Mario (voice)  /  Anya Taylor-Joy as Princess Peach (voice)  /  Charlie Day as Luigi (voice)  /  Jack Black as Bowser (voice)  /  Keegan Michael Key as Toad (voice)  /  Seth Rogen as Donkey Kong (voice)  /  Fred Armisen as Cranky Kong (voice)  /  Kevin Michael Richardson as Kamek (voice)  /  Sebastian Maniscalco as Spike (voice)  /  Charles Martinet as Giuseppe (voice)  /  Khary Payton as Penguin King (voice)  /  Eric Bauza as General Toad (voice)

Directed by Michael Jelenic and Aaron Horvath  /  Written by Matthew Fogel

It's odd that the word movie is in the title of THE SUPER MARIO BROS. MOVIE.  

This is barely a movie.  

This is more of a 90-plus minute nostalgia-baiting commercial ad to peddle a well cherished brand.  

Of course, I'm talking about Nintendo's iconic mascot in Mario, who began so modestly as a creation by Japanese game designer Shigeru Miyamoto in the early 80s and has exploded into seemingly every facet of the media world over the last four decades.  There are Mario games far too numerous to mention here, appearances in comic books, TV shows and movies (including an infamously ill-fated live action iteration from the early 90s), toys and apparel featuring his likeness...I could go on and on.  He's easily one of the most recognizable characters in the annals of gaming lore.  He's Mickey Mouse to Nintendo's Disney...a mass-marketed empire all on his own.  It's kind of astounding that it has taken this long for a new feature film of this beloved hero and his fantastical world to be made, which makes it all the more crushing to consider that THE SUPER MARIO BROS. MOVIE - despite some splendid art direction and lively animation - is such a razor thinly plotted, bland, empty minded and ultimately soulless affair.   

For a built-in billion dollar property to be made into a $100 million dollar budgeted animated film that's so creatively mishandled is a limitless shame.  The appearance of the characters and their world here are lovingly preserved.  There's a painstaking attempt to litter the film with Easter Eggs that will keep the legions of the die-hard Mario-ites happy and content.  It's fan service-y to the max and gives - visually at least - exactly what its core audience desires.  What THE SUPER MARIO BROS. MOVIE fails to do, though, is be truly bold and creative with its storytelling and characters.  So much of what's on display here in Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic's film (makers of the TEEN TITANS GO movie) has a superficial outer glow about it, to be sure, but the personalities on display and their adventures are in pure Saturday morning cartoon autopilot in the most safe and pedestrian manner possible.  I have nothing against games and/or toy franchises seeing their way to the silver screen.  Hell, look at THE LEGO MOVIE and what a smart and subversive delight it was as a piece of self-aware brand management.  By comparison, THE SUPER MARIO BROS. MOVIE is so undercooked, uninspired and lacking in innovation.

And - Mamma mia! - voice work can either enhance or destroy an animated film.  The makers of THE SUPER MARIO BROS. MOVIE have made the catastrophic error of employing Chris Pratt as the titular plumber and Charlie Day as sibling Luigi.  Both are fine actors when giving just the right material, but here they're so uniformly mediocre and stiff as their heroes (especially in whatever accent they're attempting to harness) that these characters become grating within minutes of the film opening when they should be adorable and endearing.  Mario and Luigi are struggling plumbers in Brooklyn that are trying to establish their brand and make a name for themselves, but seem to fall miserably flat when given any opportunity.  The brothers soon find a massive chamber of interconnected pipes in one of Brooklyn's sewers which - you got it - contains a portal to the magical Mushroom Kingdom, which is ruled over by the nefarious Bowser (Jack Black, faring way, way better in the voice department).  Like every megalomaniac with his sights set on world domination, Bowser also lays claim and sets his eyes on Princess Peach (a flavorless Anya Taylor-Joy), who's bound and determined to marry her, despite her not reciprocating any love back whatsoever.  Hopelessly out of his element (and separated from Luigi), Mario takes it upon himself to acclimate to this strange new world (with Peach's mentorship) and learn the skills he'll need to stop Bowser and bring peace to the Mushroom Kingdom.     

 

 

THE SUPER MARIO BROS. MOVIE, to its modest credit, doesn't stray away at all from its source material and does a meticulous job of appropriating the look and feel of the old school Nintendo games.  The aforementioned 1993 adaptation hard turned so ludicrously far away from the core elements of Miyamoto's creation that it essentially led to the company swearing off of any new film versions for decades.  The Mushroom Kingdom, its weird assortment of denizens, and the overall cute and cuddly aesthetic of the games that so many players grew up on are all here on screen in lovingly devoted form.  The film also has a couple of clever wink-wink moments that pay an obvious homage to the side-scrolling nature of the early Mario games (such as a shot featuring Mario and Luigi running through the city and dodging multiple obstacles).  THE SUPER MARIO BROS. MOVIE wisely understands the warm and fuzzy candy-color appeal of the games that inspired it.  There are also some decent attempts at modernizing the character of Peach, who in past games was nothing more than a damsel in distress, but here she's more battle hardened and capable of defending herself.  It's just too bad that an actress of Taylor-Joy's abilities is kind of lost and adrift in the role and fails to give her unique layers of charm and personality to make her stand out as an empowered heroine.

Black, as mentioned, seems to be the only voice cast member to bring any sizable gravitas to his role, and his monstrous villain's frequent bursting into song plays well into the Tenacious D performer's wheelhouse.  Black is so memorably spirited that it's like he got hijacked from a different animated film altogether and just got dropped in here, and it also has the unintentional side effect of rendering Pratt and Day's performances as gratingly indistinct.  I forgot to mention that Seth Rogan - an unendingly funny performer with an immediately recognizable voice - plays Donkey Kong in the film, but little to no attempts are made by Rogen to inject any distinctive quirks into this legendary Mario opponent.  Kong here sounds...well...blandly like Seth Rogen...and that's it.  Voice work is rarely as lazily phoned-in as it is in THE SUPER MARIO BROS. MOVIE.  Mario and the colorfully eclectic menagerie of characters that have stood by him in games of old are essentially one-note props here.  Where's the heart and spunk in this film?  By the time the already running on empty story hurtles itself towards its busy and chaotic climax (which heavily favors chaos and noise),  I was pretty much mentally checked out.   

I get it, though.  I really do.  For the most obsessive Mario fanboy out there, this film will be critic-proof and an audio-visual nirvana for the senses.  I can also see how they will find pleasure in pointing at the screen with wide-eyed glee and cataloguing this film's countless Easter Eggs and references.  When making a film out of a legendary IP, you almost kind of have to do this by default.  But at what cost?   And what's here for lay audience members?  I hate to bring it up again, but THE LEGO MOVIE (which ironically also starred Pratt) did a lot of what this film does; it was littered with joyous references, large and small.  It was also assigned with advertising its brand as a cinematic tie-in piece, not to mention that it also featured eye-popping and sumptuous animation.  But that 2014 animated effort had boundless imagination, intelligent handling of its characters and meta themes, and scripting and world-building thoughtfulness.  THE SUPER MARIO BROS. MOVIE is hopelessly bereft of that and simply emerges as an obnoxious and cynical attempt to use itself to sell more toys and games...and not much else.  You can have your cake and eat it too with these types of films, but the makers here forgot half of that equation, which makes the resulting effort kind of insufferable to sit through.

I know that the Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo live action attempt 30 years ago is largely considered a bastardized affair for woefully failing to capture the appeal of the games; very few would ever consider that film to be hallowed ground (despite it attaining modest cult status in recent film circles).  But at least that film had a vision, albeit a peculiar dystopian vision of Mario's world.  That approach didn't work at all, but it had the audacity to try something bold with this property.  THE SUPER MARIO BROS. MOVIE has such frustratingly limited ambitions and does the very least it feels that it has to do to satisfy its base.  It's mind blowing to consider that this film made over a billion dollars at the box office upon its release earlier this year.  I don't know whether that's an indictment of modern moviegoer tastes or a representation of how very little a studio has to do to get butts in the seats in a quick (and lucrative) cash grab effort.  Maybe it's both.  The one thing that THE SUPER MARIO BROS. MOVIE made me want to do was to abruptly end my screening, turn on my old Nintendo system and re-visit the classic games.  I would rather blissfully play them than watch THE SUPER MARIO BROS. MOVIE again.

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