“You think I know every human being with a mustache wearing an identical outfit with a hat with the letter of his first name on it? Because I don’t!”
That’s the big caveat for this review of The Super Mario Bros. Movie. You might be asking yourself a simple question. If I don’t know anything about the Nintendo or Super Mario Bros. games and world, will I be able to enjoy this film? The answer is that you will still be able to enjoy it, but you’ll walk away feeling like you’ve been left out of the joke. That’s how I felt after the press screening for the film. I got to hear many of my fellow critics talking with great excitement about all of these wonderful Easter eggs and subtle homage moments, and I didn’t get a single one. Check that. I did get one of them, and I’ll explain that next.
I grew up on Atari. Later it was Sega, and I was a huge Sonic The Hedgehog fan. When Sega drifted away, it was Playstation with all the iterations up until 4. I have still not scored a PS5. On Playstation I drifted toward Spiro The Dragon and eventually my all-time favorite game series: Ratchet & Clank. I have never played a Mario Bros. game or anything on a Nintendo system. The closest I ever got was spending too many quarters on the Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong, Jr. games at the local arcade. And it’s only through that experience that I did catch a rather clever homage early in the film. You have to remember that while Mario was a character in that game, he was then called Jumpman. So here I am reporting on a film I had no chance to fully understand. But that could apply to many of you who will bring your kids to the film and suffer the same lack of knowledge I did. If that describes you, then this review is for you.
“The Mario Brothers are in business.”
Mario (Pratt) and his brother Luigi (Day) are plumbers, and they’ve quit the security of working for Spike (Maniscalco). They put all of their money into an amusing television commercial and are waiting for the calls to come in. And waiting … and waiting. Their family call them idiots, and they can’t seem to get anyone else to appreciate their dream. They see their chance to become heroes when Brooklyn is flooded by some serious plumbing issue. They rush to the scene, but instead of fixing the problem, they discover an underground area with tons of mysterious pipes. If you know the franchise, you already know these pipes are transporters to other worlds and realities. So the brothers get sucked in and separated.
“Let’s hear it for The Mario Bros.”
Mario lands in the Mushroom World. Turns out he hates mushrooms. I can relate, as I’m allergic to that particular fungus. There he is meets Princess Peach (Taylor-Joy). The kingdom is awaiting the arrival of Bowser (Black) and his army. Bowser has a crush on Peach, as we are informed through a syrupy love song he’s composed. If he can’t have her, he’s going to destroy the kingdom. Enter Mario. The Princess hasn’t seen another human in a long time, so she’s a bit smitten by the plumber and she engages him to travel with her to the Kongs where she hopes to enlist the aid of Donkey Kong and his army to help. Meanwhile Luigi has landed in Bowser’s world, and all of these characters are destined to meet in typical video-game-style battle with platforms and power-ups the game is on. The unfortunate part is that you’re not holding a controller, and I’ve often found that video games are not a good spectator sport. I’ve never really enjoyed watching someone else play.
The film does a good job of taking you through some iconic things in the franchise. There’s Mario Karts and a long list of characters, movements, and cute interludes to make this one big video game. If you’re a fan, you will be in heaven trying to catch all the secrets and Easter eggs. It was obvious to me that the fans in the room found plenty of those moments to cheer.
The story is pretty simple and very much character- and world-centered. It’s a feel-good film with plenty of chances to applaud our unlikely heroes, and the pace is actually perfection itself. The film moves right along, perhaps understanding that a gamer’s attention span isn’t going to last through a lot of exposition or inaction. So the film flies, and its 90-minute running time is also perhaps perfect.
The animation is another one of those giant steps forward. I’m sure none of the games ever looked this sweet. I was a bit amused at some of the 8-bit references that an old guy like me can understand. The worlds are vivid and populated with wonderful scenery and characters. The score includes plenty of music from the various games, and they play at the appropriate moments when a particular game or level is being featured. All of this will translate to a really good time for the fans. For the rest of us it was entertaining, but I’m not sure I’d be willing to toss another quarter into the coin slot.
There’s some controversy I’d like to address here. There were many fan grumbles about the casting of Chris Pratt as Mario. Charles Martinet is known for most of the Mario games, and while he is given some cameo voice-work here, he was not deemed a big enough name to carry a huge tentpole film. I had another really small problem. I mean this partly in jest, of course, but it bears a mention. Lately there has been a movement to have voice actors do culture-appropriate characters. Big news on The Simpons when it was decided it wasn’t right for non-cultural actors to do voices like the Indian Apu. OK. If that’s the rule, how did we end up with an Irishman voicing a stereotypical Italian? It appears there is no protection for Italians these days. I mean … we invented protection, for crying out loud. Still, I forgive you, Chris. At least come by for some meatballs next time before you take on Mario again. I’ll take good care of you. At least I can get you a little “cultured-up”.
I think the film will do well. Stick around for two post-credit stingers. Ultimately it won’t be Mario-ignorant folks like me who will determine the future of this film franchise. So I put the question to you Mario Bros. fans. “Is it working?”