In The Super Mario Bros. Movie, Mario and Luigi are two Italian-American Brooklynites who quit their day jobs to start their own independent plumbing venture. Problem is, these two entrepreneurs are in over their heads, at least, that’s what their family and former employers think. No one believes in them, and Mario, especially, detests being made to feel small, so when the business opportunity of a lifetime appears, he drags his brother to save Brooklyn’s sewage problem. One wrong turn in the sewers later and the boys embark down an Alice in Wonderland warp pipe, a direct trip to the Mushroom Kingdom.
The plot’s as paper-thin as any Super Mario game: Bowser’s a big ol’ meanie and Mario’s gotta save his younger brother. But to criticize the plot would be as moot as picking apart any Mario game’s story—it’s not the point. Nintendo knows this, Illumination knows this, and it’s the journey that’s so captivating.
A History of Mario, Through the Ages
Decades upon decades of Mario history are stuffed into nearly every frame of The Super Mario Bros. Movie. It’s a testament to the collaboration between Nintendo, Illumination, and Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto’s devotion to the theatrical adaptation. Easter Eggs are built into this movie’s foundation from the scene direction to the score to the dialogue, requiring multiple rewatches just to spot them all. All of it’s earned, though, and organically built into the story’s foundation. No matter where you started, stopped, or took an extended Mario vacation, it’s impossible not to marvel at how breathtaking the animation and history blend on the big screen.
It’s sensory overload for all the right reasons. The Super Mario Bros. Movie is colorful, loud, and frenetic. Younger viewers will be glued to their seats cheering from the nonstop riot while Mario veterans succumb to the film’s faithful integrity.
But where The Super Mario Bros. Movie absolutely nails the game-to-movie translations are the set pieces. Incredible scenes are choreographed against 2D platforming and kart racing across various Mushroom Kingdom terrain we’ve jumped and ground-pounded away with sheer dexterity. I dare hold back from anything beyond the trailer at the risk of spoiling, but the teasers do a terrific job of withholding larger surprises. There’s no doubt about it: Illumination Studios absolutely nails the genuine active thrill of controlling Mario, albeit in a more passive state.
Everything Is… Awesome?
Mario veteran or not, the character is a cultural juggernaut, so we already enter the theater with expectations of the portrayals. Mario’s persistent and courageous, Luigi’s a lovable scaredy cat, Peach is more precious than Princess Bubblegum, and Bowser’s got serious communication issues. The King Koopa is very much inspired by Darth Vader, albeit an emperor with even more on-screen tantrums and a penchant for ragers. He’s a looming presence in one scene, then a crooning misanthrope with no regard for boundaries. It’s a funny contrast that allows Jack Black another opportunity to showcase his heavy metal chops.
The cinematic adaptation expands upon these quippy one-liner mascots, though, through snappy dialogue and Super Smash Bros. rivaling action. The games will never delve into Mario’s psyche, but in a medium that requires this type of investigation, the theatrical personalities are true to nearly every character.
Even so, you can’t help but compare The Super Mario Bros. Movie to another animated Pratt-fest: The Lego Movie. And for obvious reasons the actors, title, character arcs—hell, even the marketing—are transferable. The Super Mario Bros. Movie, however, plays the hero’s journey decidedly more differently than expected. Where Emmett Brickowski (Pratt) is a lovable himbo, Mario’s insecurities are more explicit; where Brickowski fails to notice his shortcomings, the perception of others chips away at Mario. Where Wyldestyle detested Emmett in The LEGO Movie, Princess Peach immediately embraces Mario as the world’s hero. In fact, Mario and Peach are the total inverses of Brick and Wyldestyle, and it’s because of this twist that the Mario Movie is truer to the mascots we’ve embodied for decades.
Alongside more inevitable comparisons, The Super Mario Bros. Movie still showcases many of Illumination Studios’ shortcomings: a reliance on gags and an inability to dig deeper into the heart of our characters. As much as the cast showcased their talent, it was surprising how little the secondary characters contributed. In so many ways, it’s just Mario’s movie, bar none—and the real issue resides in the pacing.
I’m Holding Out For a Hero
Although there’s no breadth of boredom, the sharp 90-minute runtime, while still a blast, also feels like whiplash from riding a Bullet Bill at octane speed. The mad dash pacing ignores the opportunity to invest time in secondary characters, in particular Princess Peach. One scene makes clear that the writers struggled to form her backstory, and it’s swept away like a blue shell that can’t be outrun. As a result, Princess Toadstool kicks ass in one scene and gets sidelined in the climax, just so Mario can sweep up. Princess Toadstool successfully evaded the damsel in distress trope, but now she’s just Mario’s cheerleader.
We’ll never forget who these characters are—they’re burned into the culture—but I argue that The Lego Movie invests more into plastic bricks compared to the Mario Movie’s more shallow attempt at convincing us to emotionally invest. Of course, this is just adult criticism—I dare you to find a gamer leaving the theater bummed out, and in the end, it’s our enjoyment that matters. Nine years later, am I going to reflect on Mario as I’ve done Emmett? No, but I’ll probably be too busy playing his latest adventure to care and, hopefully, cheering alongside a crowded theater at an Avenger’s style Super Smash Bros. teamup. Them’s the dream.
Although The Super Mario Bros. Movie benefits and struggles from its runtime, it’s still a fantastic joyride, if not a speedrun, through the Mushroom Kingdom that’s sure to please fans of every generation. It’s a blast from start to finish, and Nintendo/Illumination have a hit on their hands that I can only hope will pave the way for a decade of Nintendo movies we’ve all dreamed up since gripping our first controller.
- This article was updated on April 5th, 2023