‘The Super Mario Bros. Movie’ Perfectly Captures the Games’ Spirit – The Daily Beast

The “Minions” studio’s take on Nintendo’s biggest franchise is gorgeous and playful—even if the storytelling is stuck in 2D.
Deputy Entertainment Editor
Video game adaptations are in vogue this spring—and they’re actually … good? HBO’s The Last of Us premiered in January to critical acclaim, convincing naysayers that maybe you can translate the interactive medium to a more passive space. But it’s the long-awaited, The Super Mario Bros. Movie (April 5) that’s both the most anticipated entry into the genre and its biggest test.
The reasons are obvious: Mario is the biggest gaming franchise in the world. Since he first appeared in 1981’s Donkey Kong, the jumping plumber’s appeared in more than 200 games, with nearly one billion copies sold across them all. Nintendo just opened its second theme park attraction dedicated to the Mushroom Kingdom and its characters—that’s the mark of some strong IP.
Unlike The Last of Us, which had prestige drama bonafides to lean on, Mario Bros. had some extra hurdles to cross before it could win over Nintendo diehards. The games have a gigantic fanbase, for one, making it impossible to please everyone. But there’s also the fact that Illumination Entertainment, the American studio best-known for the very annoying Minions movies, was handling it. Despite Minions’ massive success at the box office and stronghold over small children, ironic TikTok teens, and Facebook moms, Illumination was an eyebrow-raising choice for anyone over the age of 12.
And then there was the casting, with social media villain Chris Pratt winning the lead role over Mario’s longtime voice actor Charles Martinet. Choosing an A-lister with voice acting credits to his 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 grunting. To go with someone as maligned as Pratt … big yikes!

Perhaps the biggest question of all was whether the Mario series could even make sense as a full-length movie. The basic premise of any Mario game is threadbare: Mario has to rescue Princess Peach from the clutches of the evil Bowser, traveling through increasingly treacherous worlds in order to do so. Dialogue and character development are minimal. How the heck is this supposed to be a movie?
The solution was for writer Matthew Fogel and co-directors ​​Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic (Teen Titans Go!) to go back to the beginning, creating an origin story for Mario and his brother Luigi (Charlie Day). Instead of being regular citizens of Mushroom Kingdom, Mario and Luigi are down-on-their-luck Brooklynites, whose plumbing business isn’t picking up the way they want. (Making the Mario Bros. New Yorkers instead of stereotypical Italians was the right move, eliminating the problem of Pratt doing a horrible accent.)
Their family—all humans, with creepy human hands!—doesn’t 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 an entirely different universe. But their trips through the pipes split the boys up, forcing Mario to go on a journey to find his baby bro with the help of his new friends Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Toad (Keegan-Michael Key).
Unfortunately, Luigi ends up in the clutches of Bowser (Jack Black), who wants to marry Peach and take over Mushroom Kingdom. He’ll burn to a crisp anyone who dares stand in his path, with help from his magical sidekick Kamek (Kevin Michael Richardson) and an army of Koopas. To take on Bowser’s troops, Peach, Mario, and Toad solicit the help of the neighboring jungle kingdom, home of Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen) and Cranky Kong (Fred Armisen). But to win the Kongs over, Mario will have to prove himself—which means he must learn how to fight and navigate this magical world, building up his self-confidence along the way.
And that’s … basically all there is. Super Mario Bros.’ story is only slightly beefier than the average Mario game’s plot, a paint-by-numbers scenario that doesn’t rock the boat too much. For a movie whose source material doesn’t come with such a storied legacy, though, this would be more of a con. Mario isn’t known for any specific canon or lore, which, while made painfully apparent here, also means there are fewer chances to really piss anyone off. It’s disappointing that the film feels so wispy on a story level, for sure. But it would be worse if the film overcompensated for this weakness by slathering on the typical traits of a big-budget, mainstream, Hollywood kids’ film—think shallow pop culture references and bathroom jokes.
Thankfully, Super Mario Bros. has none of these. There’s some chuckle-worthy comedy interspersed throughout, namely from Rogen and Black, whose D.K. and Bowser are essentially mouthpieces for their distinct senses of humor. (Black, for instance, improvises some love songs for Peach.) And while the jokes will not bowl any adults over, they also won’t offend their taste—and neither will the voice acting, which is blessedly inoffensive despite all the pre-release anxiety over whether American Pratt will suit Italian Mario. Instead, after the top-heavy first act establishes the backstory, the movie mostly becomes a playground for Nintendo action figures to do their thing, to its benefit.

Nintendo’s biggest franchise is most beloved not for its voice acting or story, but for its spirit: a joyful sense of wonder, fun, and imaginative possibility. And that’s what The Super Mario Bros. Movie captures with aplomb. In fact, it’s perhaps the most accomplished portrait of the actual nature of a video game in recent memory, imbued with kinetic energy and clear affection for the franchise that is undeniable for any fan.
Once you get past the awkwardness that is shoehorning a backstory for Mario, the film focuses on nailing down the rhythm of the classic games. There are beautifully directed sequences that emulate the balletic nature of a sidescroller, as Mario runs across platforms and climbs up ladders. Combined with the fantastic art direction and animation, watching Super Mario Bros. is like watching the most high-definition Mario game in action.
The movie’s biggest setpieces are all love letters to the franchise, from a beautiful Mario Kart-esque race across an iconic roadway to an enthralling fight between Mario and D.K. Super Mario Bros. obeys the fantasy logic of the games too; Mario gobbles up colorful mushrooms to grow bigger or smaller, and grabs a fire flower to shoot fireballs at enemies. His surprise and excitement at unleashing these abilities mirrors our own—it’s like booting up a new Mario entry for the first time, getting a feel for the gameplay. It’s clear that creator Shigeru Miyamoto, credited as a producer, gave the movie his blessing. All the Nintendo Easter eggs strewn throughout add to the authenticity and the fun, ranging from the obvious (World 1-1 signs) to the more obscure (Diskun!).
Super Mario Bros. is a film that takes the Nintendo faithful’s valid concerns into consideration, making up for its weaker spots by exploding the film with immeasurable heart. It may not offer much to turn the gaming-ignorant into full-on converts, but it offers plenty enough for the remaining millions of us. Beautiful visuals and exciting play—what more could a Mario fan really need?
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Deputy Entertainment Editor
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