The Super Mario Bros. Movie
The iconic bouncing video game plumber is granted an animated big-screen adaptation in Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic’s The Super Mario Bros. Movie.
As will be the case with many, playing the original Super Mario Bros. on the NES is among my earliest video game memories. Many hours were spent guiding the pudgy plumber through increasingly difficult levels trying to rescue a captive princess only to be taunted with declarations that she is in another castle. The game was simple and highly addictive which explains the enduring success it has achieved. Decades later there are many games featuring Mario, his brother and an ever-growing cast of side characters. Mario’s first foray into film is an infamous disaster and now Illumination is having a go in animated form.
The story revolves around the titular Mario Bros., Mario (Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day) – a sibling partnership of plumbers who have just set up their own business much to the chagrin of their disapproving family. Circumstances lead to them being sucked through a pipe that leads to a fantastical world known as the Mushroom Kingdom where a tyrannical fire-breathing turtle named Bowser (Jack Black) is looking to secure himself a bride and is willing to destroy the kingdom to do it.
Nothing about this plot will be in any way challenging to anyone but it’s all in the execution and this movie tells its story well. The running time including credits is barely in excess of 90 minutes and it moves as a rapid clip. The upside is that it never sticks with something long enough for it to become dull and played out but the downside is that everything delivered only receives superficial attention. It’s not such a big issue considering that decades of Mario games have gotten by being very light on plot at best.
Mario’s journey takes him to a variety of locations, each of them based on levels in various games with their own visual identity. Some are blink and you’ll miss it but others are featured more substantially. Their unique features are used well in context and the visual variety prevents the film from becoming stale. The environments are affectionally created to match the games as much as possible while still being functional within the world the film establishes. Many of the best sequences involve exploring how the physics of the video games can be applied to set pieces.
It’s a very good looking film. The colours practically pop off the screen and the detail on the characters as a contrast to the relatively simple environments that surround them is always impressive. Mario and Luigi’s overalls have texture and hair weaves in the breeze but objects like blocks have a charming simplicity to them. Nothing seems overdesigned and there’s always a clear indication that effort has gone into perfecting the aesthetic.
The characterisation is mixed but works for the most part. Mario is traditionally innately heroic. He doesn’t have an arc as such as he arrives fully formed and is never hampered by anything like fear or uncertainty. His fierce determination to rescue Luigi propels the film forward but having no measurable development stands out as a weakness. Luigi spends most of the film imprisoned and has very little to do. He is set up as being less confident and less capable than his brother and is defined by being in his more famous brother’s shadow much like the video games but it does the character no favours to be sidelined as the objective for most of the film. He does eventually become a more active participant but it happens late on. All told there isn’t much Super Mario Bros. in The Super Mario Bros. Movie. Chris Pratt and Charlie Day both take to their roles well.
Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy) receives a major overhaul from her video game counterpart. Instead of being the perpetual prisoner of Bowser, she’s a strong and capable leader who knows how to protect herself and has the skills to do so in abundance. Anya Taylor-Joy plays her with confidence, compassion and tenacity. Mario is more of her partner on their shared quest and they share focus. She’s an engaging character that will no doubt be a role model to young girls. As with Mario, she lacks an arc of any kind as she arrives fully formed and never has to overcome anything personal in order to achieve her goal. She sets out to do something she knows she’s capable of achieving and accomplishes it without much trouble.
Jack Black’s Bowser is a fun villain that is a great example of casting enhancing a role. Many quirks associated with Jack Black make it into the characterisation and giving him a motivation founded on being infatuated with Peach was a nice touch that allowed for many of the film’s strongest comedy moments. He never comes across as being truly terrifying so often fails to be a truly credible threat. Mileage will vary on other characters like a bro-ish Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen) or irritating comedy sidekick, Toad (Keegan-Michael Key)
Fans of the video games will find most of what they expect crammed into the running time. Brian Tyler neatly weaves the earworm music into his score to great effect. The film also contains power-ups, iconic sound effects, cart racing, recognisable enemies and all manner of other winks and nods to the games. An early sequence even frames a Brooklyn construction site as if it were a side-scrolling Mario level. Such references are texture to the experience rather than the experience itself so the movie never feels overloaded with pointless nostalgia as it’s all purposeful in establishing this world. It’s undeniably relentless but there’s a use for almost everything. A lot of effort was put into ensuring that this world makes sense.
The Super Mario Bros. movie succeeds in what it sets out to do. It doesn’t aim particularly high but it sets its sights on a particular goal and gets there comfortably. The end product amounts to a fun and visually impressive adventure with strong pacing that never ceases to be fun.
A fun and visually impressive movie with strong pacing made with boundless affection for the source material.
- impressive visuals
- strong pacing
- the overhaul of Peach as a character
- Jack Black’s performance
- using video game iconography as texture for the world
- characters lacking in character arcs
- Bowser failing to be a credible threat
- sidelining Luigi
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