Super Mario Bros. Movie Review: Not Quite a Great Show, But a Powerful Nostalgia Tour

It took decades, but video game movies finally came full circle with the release of The Super Mario Bros. Movie. It’s Super Mario Bros. from 1993 that kicked off Hollywood’s regular flirtations with video game adaptations – and the same film in many ways came to represent the infamy that video game movies have enjoyed ever since. Simply put, it was hogwash – though it’s also filled with imagery that would make it a silent cult classic. Now Nintendo has teamed up with Illumination, the studio behind the Minions, to break the curse.

The movie Super Mario Bros. | Final Trailer

By many measures, The movie Super Mario Bros. is successful. By others, it’s much less so – but rest assured that anyone who says this film is “as bad” or even remotely comparable to its 90s cousin is talking hyperbolic nonsense. This movie is in a different area code. The question is, is he really as good as his current peers? The world of cinematic game conversions is very different in 2023 than it was in the 90s; in fact, the competition is quite fierce.

The choice of illumination is, well, illuminating. It’s a studio that I would say isn’t really about art the way others are – certainly not in the Scorsese sense, but even in the kid’s space compared to Pixar. In those stakes, I would place them even south of Dreamworks Animation. But what Illumination is extremely adept at is making films that push buttons for audiences, especially young people, in the right way. They’re never particularly substantial, but they do work. And such is the case for the movie Super Mario Bros.

It’s a professional script, which keeps the running time brief for small children and the gag-time plentiful for everyone else. It’s a familiar setup from the 1993 version, in fact – Mario and Luigi are New York plumbers, and after a good ten to fifteen minutes of their daily work, events unfold that see them sucked into a warp pipe. and spat out into the fantasy world we know of games.

Picture: universal.

It’s worth noting that despite being a lifelong fan of the Mushroom Kingdom and its adjacent worlds, and deeply familiar with all of the games, this first pass is actually my favorite part of the movie. There’s a fun little slapstick comedy about the mistakes of a bathroom repair gone wrong, and a decent amount of characterization for Mario, Luigi, and, surprisingly, some of their extended family (but, before you excite, no other familiar faces).

It’s also in this stretch that the references flow freely (Kid Icarus! An Arwing! Wrecking Crew! Punch-Out!), and also when the performances and characters have a slim chance to shine. I think everyone here is well chosen – even Chris Pratt, who got a lot of flak at the back of the trailers but does a pretty good “classic” Mario voice at the very start of the movie before giving up the exaggerated flair for something more palatable for the lead of a 92-minute feature. I thought Jack Black’s Bowser would be my performance highlight — and he’s awesome — but it was the quiet brotherly chemistry between Pratt’s Mario and Charlie Day’s Luigi that left the biggest impression.

Once in the Mushroom Kingdom, the adventure begins – but really, not much happens. Bowser is on a rampage, and Princess Peach must seek out and form an alliance with the Kingdom of Kong—represented by Donkey, Kranky, and approximately one million Kong cameos—in order to survive. Mario and Luigi end up going their separate ways; Mario with Peach, Luigi trapped with the bad guys. The plot from when this is all settled to the end is breadcrumbs – and boy, those crumbs are extremely small. It’ll probably work just fine for little kids, but older viewers are more likely to want more meat on those bones.

But it’s an Illumination movie, and as minimalist as it is – it’s still fun. There’s a surprising adherence to the rules of the games that’s rare in film adaptations – power-ups are a thing, as is the logic that if you get hit you lose their bonus. Sometimes it might backfire – as a Mario player, I fully understood the climax, and was even excited about it, but I think some elements might fly over some people’s heads.

Picture: universal.

The nostalgia pipe is wide open, however – and its potency is hard to argue with. Each image is full of references to the Mario and DK series, some more obscure than others. The glue that holds the movie together is its score – and I would actually say it’s the best piece in the movie.

Kojo Kondo’s work on the Mario series is iconic, and this score by Brian Tyler (Expendables, Iron Man 3, Fast & Furious franchise) makes ample use of it. The score usually starts with a recognizable Mario theme, then quickly turns into something more original before staging a whiplash return to another classic theme. It’s frantic, it’s wild…and wow, it works.

It’s true that any movie would be transformed, probably for the worse, if its score was removed or replaced with something more generic – imagine James Bond or Indiana Jones without the themes of Johns Barry or Williams. But it must be said that Mario’s score is clearly transformative on another level. I dare say that without this piece of the puzzle, the film might feel more vapid and more like a cynical paint-by-numbers cashing. The score lifts the whole room, and the movie as a whole feels like a perfect homage to the legend of Kondo.

For me, the score comes out of the papers on the cracks. To compare with Mario’s nemesis, the Sonic movies (and also Detective Pikachu) have me excited by the way they use some of the franchise’s iconic imagery – often in interesting and slightly surprising ways. There’s little surprise in Mario, and little interest in how his greatest iconography comes across. They just appear, and you are asked to recognize them and feel happy in memory.

Picture: universal.

Similarly, Mario’s humor is surprisingly rote and one-dimensional – which surprised me, given Illumination’s comedy chops. Either way, you have to admit it’s a kid’s movie, obviously, but Sonic and Pokemon show there’s another, more measured and effective way.

But maybe the point is that when the Mario movie tries to escape it, it starts to stall. Take the arrival in the Kingdom of the King, for example. Despite the frantic pace of the adventure, it’s clearly decided that at this point there’s been too much time between action scenes – so we have a plodding section where a nameless Kong drives Crazy Taxi style to through Kong-land while A-Ha’s “Take on Me” blasts. It practically feels like it dropped from another movie. There are a few moments like this where the action starts to lean towards the credits and your brain starts to drift.

The result, then, is a film that may not be as interesting or as brave as some of its peers – but it’s perfectly enjoyable on its own. For my money, the crown stays somewhere between the Sonics and Detective Pikachu – with barely a cigarette paper to separate them – but Mario is right behind, nipping at his heels. And definitely, the kids will love it – it’s going to be a mega bargain.

Oh, and – if you’re patient enough to stick around after the credits… you might want to? There are two stingers – one after the main credits and a second after the full roll. If you know your Mario, it’s worth it.

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