Wednesday, April 19, 2023

The Super Mario Bros. Movie

Mario is a character who needs no introduction. Even if you’ve never played a video game before, chances are you recognize the Italian plumber, or at the very least heard of him or any of the literally hundreds of games he’s been in. He’s also no stranger to adaptations, with three dedicated TV series (The Super Mario Bros. Super Show!, The Adventures of Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World) and two films (the animated Super Mario Bros.: The Great Mission to Rescue Princess Peach! and the live-action Super Mario Bros.) under his belt. After a nearly 30-year absence from the silver screen, a second theatrical film, The Super Mario Bros. Movie, was announced with animation studio Illumination at the helm. Considering Illumination’s rather contentious output following Despicable Me, their first feature, their involvement invited some understandable skepticism that continued even during the first round of marketing. Mario fans can rest assured, however, knowing that in spite of the studio behind it, The Super Mario Bros. Movie, while not flawless, is indeed the film they’ve been waiting for.

Italian-American brothers Mario (Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day) have left their jobs and started a plumbing business in Brooklyn, though their father disapproves and their first gig unfortunately goes south. When a major manhole leak threatening the city is reported on the news, Mario and Luigi go underground to fix it, but become separated when they stumble on a Warp Pipe and enter a new world. Mario ends up in the Mushroom Kingdom, where its ruler, Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy), plans to form an alliance with the Jungle Kingdom to stop the evil Bowser (Jack Black). Luigi, meanwhile, ends up in the Dark Lands and is quickly imprisoned by Bowser, who wishes to marry Peach, with plans to destroy the Mushroom Kingdom with the power of the Super Star if she refuses.

Mario (Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day) start their new career as plumbers.

After decades of Nintendo depicting Mario and Luigi as natives of the Mushroom Kingdom (as established in Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island), it’s an interesting move for this second theatrical attempt to return to the original premise of the brothers as accidentally traveling there from Brooklyn. While perhaps a bold decision now, especially since moviegoers may remember the Sonic the Hedgehog films using the same idea, the execution is very different, having the main characters go from the real to the fantastical rather than the other way around. Some may also remember that the live-action Super Mario Bros. also used the same premise, but that film was infamously nowhere near as faithful as The Super Mario Bros. Movie is now.

That said, while this film’s plot likely won’t win it any Oscars, it does a great job taking various elements from the source material and making a coherent feature that feels accessible to general audiences without sacrificing what fans love about the games. Mario and Luigi’s storylines are both pretty easy to follow and Bowser’s motivation is a rather funny play on his interactions with Princess Peach, including his plan to marry her in Super Mario Odyssey, portraying him as a hopeless romantic who has no idea how to properly express himself except through evil acts (though this doesn’t stop him from being genuinely evil). The inclusion of Donkey Kong is also nicely done, working the Donkey Kong universe very organically while contributing to a theme of wanting parental approval. Even elements like the in-game Power-Ups and an entire Mario Kart section somehow also don’t feel out of place and fit in perfectly with the established setting. Some fans may also find it refreshing to see Peach in a more proactive role, though it should be noted that this isn’t the first time she wasn’t a damsel in distress (she even had her own video game, Super Princess Peach, on the Nintendo DS).

From the story to the visuals, it’s clear that a lot of love and care went into this film. On top of seamlessly featuring elements from the games, everything from the games looks perfect in 3D, with a slightly different art style to help the film versions of the characters stand out from their video game counterparts while keeping them perfectly recognizable. Fans will also certainly appreciate all the nods to the various Mario media from over the years, including a variation of the “Mario Rap” from The Super Mario Bros. Super Show! and a sequence in the first act that perfectly replicates 2D platforming in a more realistic Brooklyn environment (complete with flagpole finale). There are also tons of Easter eggs hidden throughout the environment and story that may take repeat viewings to fully discover.

The film has some very striking visuals.

If being Illumination’s best-looking film to date and featuring a great balance of action and humor wasn’t enough, the voice acting is also very stellar. Jack Black absolutely nails his role as Bowser, sounding nearly unrecognizable until he sings the film’s sole (very short) original song, “Peaches”. Charlie Day is also a great fit as Luigi, as is, surprisingly enough, Seth Rogen as Donkey Kong. Despite how the trailers portrayed him, Chris Pratt actually does a pretty good job as Mario and is nearly unrecognizable in the role, showing that he, like Jack Black and Keegan-Michael Key as Toad, has a lot more range than we would normally think. It certainly helps that there was precedent in prior media for giving Mario a Brooklyn accent and that Charles Martinet, who voices Mario in the games, still has a cameo role.

Then there’s the score by Brian Tyler. Not only does it include original compositions that wouldn’t sound out of place in the Mario universe, it even includes new takes on existing music from the games, especially the more well-known themes. As such, it rewards familiarity with the games, though it still sounds very good on its own. Fans will also enjoy hearing various iconic sound effects taken straight from the games and used in very appropriate situations.

As good and fun as the film is, however, there are a couple genuine criticisms. For one, Luigi doesn’t do much in the story until the climactic third act, spending most of his screentime imprisoned by Bowser. The other is that although the film doesn’t overstay its welcome, the brisk 92-minute runtime means that certain scenes and character moments don’t have much room to breathe. While some information could potentially serve as sequel bait, on top of the post-credits scene, the film could have slowed down a tiny bit so it could better explore its emotional core in places, such as a scene where Mario and Donkey Kong reveal and talk out their insecurities.

Despite its imperfections, however, The Super Mario Bros. Movie is easily not only Illumination’s best film since the original Despicable Me, but also the best Mario film to date, especially in its faithfulness to the source material. Whether you’re a longtime Mario fan or someone looking for a good animated film to watch this year, you’re certainly in for a good time.


A Non-Gamer's Perspective (lionsroar)

Writing from the non-gamer’s point of view, I have to agree with the opening of the review: Mario needs no introduction. You only have to have your eyes open to have seen him go by in some form or another. That said, familiarity wouldn’t have made me go to see The Super Mario Bros. Movie on my own. Nothing against animated films but films based on video games have been hit and mostly miss; and the pre-release chatter was very critical about the main character’s voice actor, Chris Pratt.

The film does its best to make the Mario Brothers into likable characters, who have dreams of their own who get drawn into a situation they didn’t create. After that it plays like an adventure/fantasy film and there's nothing wrong with that. The story moved at a pretty good pace and sort of plays out the way you would expect it to; again, not a bad thing.

I have to imagine that if I had played the games I might have picked up on more. No doubt there are Easter eggs that I missed but that didn't take away from my enjoyment of the film.

It's always hard for me to really judge voice acting but I can say that Chris Pratt, to someone who hasn’t any strong preconceived notions of what Mario should sound like, wasn't as bad as some of the pre-release comments would have led me to believe. None of the voice-acting seem to have been miscast. In fact, some of the voice actors don’t sound like themselves, which is sadly novel when “stars” are cast in animated films. It’s nice to see range.

If you’re like me, and you find yourself going to see the movie, don’t fret. You may not get every reference or know who every character is but, in the end, you should have a good time.

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