The mixture of nostalgia and corporate interest often produce delicious looking cinematic fruits whose aroma is seemingly too intoxicating to pass up. However, it only takes a few bites to reveal the hollowness at its core. While the commodification of my generation’s childhood has occurred for decades with the Transformer movies, endless superhero adaptations, and various video game-based movies, rarely have they felt as blatantly soulless as it does with Illumination’s The Super Mario Bros. Movie.
Nintendo’s second attempt, after 1993’s live-action Super Mario Bros., to bring its most iconic video game characters to the big screen, this animated action-comedy finds the beloved plumbers in red and green overalls racing to save the Mushroom Kingdom and their home of Brooklyn from destruction. Branching out to start their own plumping business, brothers Mario (Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day) find it difficult to make a name for themselves. Despite throwing their money into a rap-inspired television commercial, they have only mustered one customer call so far. Adding to the pressure is the fact that their dad (Charles Martinet) constantly questions why they would leave stable jobs to embark on such a venture.
Desperate to prove themselves, Mario and Luigi decide to take matters into their own hands when a faulty pipe threatens to flood the heart of Brooklyn. While investigating the issue, the brothers stumble upon a green pipe that transports them to another world. Unfortunately, Luigi lands in the region ruled by the fearsome Bowser (Jack Black), who has just acquired a star that is considered the most powerful weapon in the universe. Filled with lava rivers, hordes of skeleton turtles and other dark magic, the place is a house of horrors for the fearful Luigi.
By contrast Mario hits the jackpot by landing in the wholesome Mushroom Kingdom, a colourful land filled with talking mushrooms, including friendly Toad (Keegan-Michael Key), and ruled by a princess named Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy). Worried about Bowser’s upcoming invasion, and needing every ally she can get, Princess Peach agrees to help Mario find his brother, but only after they convince the a nearby tribe to provide them with some additional soldiers.
While it is refreshing to see that saving the princess is no longer the focus of a Mario story, and that Princess Peach kicks butt in her own right, there is very little in the plot to keep the film afloat. Sailing on the cheap inflatable raft of nostalgia, The Super Mario Bros. Movie feels more like a cinematic tutorial on how to play the game than a fully realized film. Unlike other video game inspired works, take the far superior Sonic the Hedgehog for example, the film lacks character development and depth.
All of the characters can be summed up in the simplest of terms. Mario and Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen) have daddy issues, Luigi is a scaredy-cat, Princess Peach is skilled in combat but doesn’t know her past, etc. The only individual with any sort of dimension to them is Bowser, who is easily the best part of the film, as he balances his lust for power and his love for Princess Peach. Even the depressed Lulamee (Juliet Jelenic), who is experiencing an existential crisis while caged in Bowser’s castle, sparks more reaction from the audience than the titular brothers.
Instead of taking the time to establish its characters and their relationships, the film inundates viewers with countless nods to the source material, like turning a simple run to a client’s house into a side-scrolling stage of the game, and a plethora of easter eggs. While fans will take delight in how faithful the film is to the game, these elements do not add up to a cohesive work. One of the most annoying aspects of The Super Mario Bros. Movie is that it simply assumes everyone has played the game. The film does not take time to explore its various locations in any meaningful way.
Immediately after meeting the plumber, Princess Peach tests Mario’s ability on an obstacle course full of “power up” items, which will give a person various abilities for a limited time, but never explains why these boxes are randomly hovering in the sky or their use in everyday life. It is just a given fact similar to a tribe of apes’ using Go Karts to get around their island. While the Go Karts do provide an excuse for the characters to drive down the famed Rainbow Road, arguably the film’s most exciting action sequence, it also feels like a blatant commercial for the Mario Kart games.
Directors Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic are no strangers to bringing popular commodities to the big screen. After all, they were part of the team that made the delightful Teen Titans Go! To the Movies, a film full of sharp humour that offered a fresh takes on superhero films. By contrast The Super Mario Bros. Movie feels like it is trapped in a past it is afraid to break free from. The film assumes that one’s fond memories of the games, take seeing Mario in a racoon suit or Princess Peach using her dress as a parachute for example, is enough to carry you through the film’s 92-minute running time.
For many years, the 1993 version was the butt of jokes when it came to video game related films. While not a great film by any means, it at least approached its world in a unique way. The same cannot be said for The Super Mario Bros. Movie, a film that feels as hollow as those empty golden coin boxes in the game.