Movie Review – The Super Mario Bros. Movie

The Super Mario Bros. Movie (2023)
Written by Matthew Fogel
Directed by Aaron Horvath & Michael Jelenic

Despite numerous adaptations to film & television, live-action & animated, Mario remains one of the most nebulous pop culture characters regarding his narrative arc. Most cartoon shows begin in media res; Mario is already the hero and, accompanied by his friends Luigi, Toad, and Peach, fights the good fight against Bowser & his Koopa Troopas. The hybrid Super Mario Bros. Super Show television series exists as this strange liminal object, with the framing device of Captain Lou Albano & Danny Wells, as Mario & Luigi, respectively, introducing audiences to cartoon stories about them. Yet, there is never an apparent effort made to establish the timeline of events. The 1993 live-action movie starring Bob Hoskins & John Leguizamo veers off into its own unique & bizarre direction, positing a parallel dinosaur-dominated timeline. As much presence as Mario has in American & Japanese culture since the 1980s, no one seems very concerned about the story behind the plumber. In this way, The Super Mario Bros. Movie exists as the first origin story that adheres closely to the designs & relationship dynamics of the video games.

Mario (Christopher Pratt) and Luigi (Charles Day) are plumbing brothers who have left their previous employer, Spike, to start their own business. An unsuccessful first job brings the brothers down, but a massive manhole leak flooding the city has Mario dragging Luigi downtown to help. They descend into the sewers and discover a strange labyrinth seemingly forgotten by time and proceed to be separated after a warp pipe pulls them in. Luigi ends up in the Darklands, which puts him directly in the clutches of the despotic King Bowser (Jacob Black). Meanwhile, Mario finds himself in the fantastical Mushroom Kingdom, led by plucky sidekick Toad (Keegan Michael-Key) to the region’s monarch Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy). Bowser is headed their way with a Super Star, and the locals don’t know what he has planned. A quick run through a platformer obstacle course and an introduction to power-ups see Mario & Peach on their way.

The duo’s first stop is at the Jungle Kingdom, where Peach hopes to convince their ruler, Cranky Kong (Fereydun Armisen), as his people, combined with Peach’s, would be a formidable army for Bowser to go up against. Cranky issues a prerequisite, though, for this alliance to be forged, Mario must defeat the ape-man’s son, Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen), in hand-to-hand combat. Mario struggles to hold his own in this battle until discovering a Super Bell power-up which gives him a powerful catsuit that he uses to handily defeat his brutish competitor. The forces of the Jungle Kingdom take to their kart transports and drive along the Rainbow Road to join Peach’s armies but are ambushed by Bowser and his armada. Complications ensue that separate the characters for them to self-actualize and become the archetypal figures we know them as in the context of the video games. In the end, evil is defeated, yet as we know as adults, can evil truly ever be stopped?

You may have noticed the formalized tone of this review so far. After reading some ridiculous responses to professional critics’ takes on the movie, I wrote it like that. America and its domestic big-budget movies are just escapist trash at this point. There hasn’t been any point in the history of the United States when most popular entertainment has been less culturally relevant than it is right now. There seems to be a “throw shit at the wall and see if it sticks” mantra as the guiding force in all major studio releases. Any intellectual properties a studio or its parent company can access will be developed into movies or shows on a streaming platform with little regard to the audience’s demands. Hell, the audiences just seem to want bright colors, quick cuts, and loud noises. Who has time for a story or character development that doesn’t follow well-established formulas?

Rotten Tomatoes is just one of the worst websites ever made, which has led audiences to develop animosity toward professional critics. They must understand that a professional film critic writing for a newspaper or nationally circulated magazine sees almost every major studio movie. Critics’ criteria for judging a movie are not based on how much they love the pre-existing IP. What they are looking for and why they are watching the film in that theater is different from why a fan of the IP would be in the theater. Thus, a disparity in the incredibly broken & vague metric that Rotten Tomatoes uses. I tend to look at the Critics’ Score vs. Audience Score as a saying, “If you don’t already love this thing, here’s what you will likely think,” vs. “if you already love the characters, here’s what you will likely think.”

Will a child enjoy The Super Mario Bros. Movie? Maybe, some will, I guess, if they are really into Mario. Did I enjoy this movie? I chuckled less than a dozen times and got bored about a third of the way into the film, which only clocks in at 92 minutes. My problem with the movie is likely not one a child will have, though I know some pretty media-savvy kids who might turn their noses up. The Mario movie is rife with cliches to the point that the entire arc of Mario and every other character is just copy/pasted from every film like this that has ever been made. I was really disappointed in that, but ultimately not shocked. I hoped they would throw some curveballs at us and surprise us with plot beats we might not expect. Not only do they not shake up the story in any way, but I am confident that any semi-regular film viewer can predict each plot point once the movie starts. 

Of the actors, only one stood out to me as trying to voice act, Jack Black. He is changing his voice to play Bowser in a significant way. Do they take advantage of the actor’s talent for singing? Yup. That’s the only thing I didn’t anticipate about the movie, not that it made much difference. The rest of the voice acting is just dull & lifeless. I don’t know how these people were directed, but the vibe I got was that they were told to use as little emotion in their voices as possible, with only Seth Rogen choosing to break that rule. He doesn’t do anything other than talk in his regular speaking voice, though. Chris Pratt, Charlie Day, and Anya Taylor-Joy sound like themselves, not terrible, but nothing that evokes the feeling of Super Mario.

It is fun to see the Mario characters animated in three dimensions, engaged in a movie plot, but it’s also as insubstantial as cotton candy. Attempts are made at lazy character arcs; Mario laments his father doesn’t respect him, but no one cares in the audience or the production crew. This certainly has all the hallmarks of an Illumination animated movie. They do certainly throw as many Mario easter eggs and references as possible over the runtime, so if you like pointing at a movie screen and saying, “I know that thing,” well, then do I have the film for you. 


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