Yes, I am of the Nintendo generation, probably more so of the Atari 2600 than NES; however, you get my point – I was exposed to games early on. I grew up with Duck Hunt and Super Mario Bros. After many hours trying to get past a certain level, I finally beat the game. Once, which was enough. Still, if the NES was a level-up from the Atari 2600, then Aaron Horvath’s and Michael Jelenic’s The Super Mario Bros. Movie is a level-up from the live-action 1993 version.
Horvath and Jelenic, best known for their Teen Titans Go! series and movie, team up again for The Super Mario Bros. Movie. It is not an entirely successful affair, but there is certainly enough to keep families entertained in the absence of other, similar family fare in theaters.
In The Super Mario Bros. Movie‘s favor is its strong cast. Fans of the various iterations of the popular Nintendo game will appreciate Chris Pratt‘s Mario and his brother, Luigi, voiced by Charlie Day. The two brothers are down-on-their-luck plumbers, as advertised by a shlocky television ad right from the start. The brothers, who worked for Sebastian Mansicalco’s Spike, seek that one opportunity to prove their worth, though Spike and their family don’t think they can make it work.
That ad generates one lead, which turns into an opportunity of a lifetime for the brothers as they are pulled into the Mushroom Kingdom and the “Dark Lands,” respectively. All it takes is one opportunity, as evidenced by the recently released Air. Yet, this is where The Super Mario Bros Movie runs its narrative course, with a script courtesy of Matthew Fogel (Minions: The Rise of Gru, The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part).
From the start, The Super Mario Bros. Movie intends to start a franchised universe of its various characters for Nintendo, which controls the rights to every aspect of the game, Illumination and distributor, Universal. Fogel’s script focuses more development on the character front, giving at least Mario, Anya Taylor-Joy’s Princess Peach, and Jack Black’s Bowser: The King of the Koopas narrative arcs.
Those character arcs are the film’s heart, yet they come at the expense of the overall story narrative, missing a chord. The primary theme of recognizing your value and self-worth is essential. The lackluster balance between the characters and the story emulates the gameplay from various iterations of Super Mario Bros. However, those familiar with the later versions of the game, Mario Kart et al., will find significant eye candy within the story’s walls.
Mario is the stronger of the two brothers in terms of character development. Luigi isn’t precisely a cardboard character; Day gives life to the diminutive, supportive half of the duo. However, the character isn’t really felt until the third act. Likewise, the movie wouldn’t work without Princess Peach. Taylor-Joy is as stand-offish as modern princesses have become, an aspect of the character I respected, especially in the face of Bowser’s unrelenting desire to consume the Mushroom Kingdom.
Bowser’s self-indulgent nature and the world structure between the Mushroom Kingdom and the “Dark Lands” intrigued me as the story gives way to a Flash Gordon – esque world. Fogel briefly won me over with Bowser, trying desperately to win over the Princess, isolated in front of a piano. Who knew Black had such a strong baritone voice?!
Where the story development doesn’t pass muster, the jaw-dropping animation from Illumination does. Throughout Super Mario Bros. Movie, the animation shines. The third-act battle, reminiscent of a Lego Movie, looked spectacular.
The trouble with The Super Mario Bros. Movie isn’t that it exists; there are a lot of fans from over the years, and the narrative does a great job with easter eggs from the games, including an updated version of the theme. The trouble comes down to the movie feeling like it knew this was just the first level, that it needed to establish the characters and then move on; it doesn’t really bring anything new regarding story beats. The movie also left me feeling like I did as a kid, playing a video game that I could not beat, and once I did, I didn’t feel the need to return to it. The ensemble is strong, even if not all the characters get their full attention.
As much as The Super Mario Bros. Movie is a level-up from prior attempts to start a film franchise, it is an uneven and rushed affair.