When it was announced that Illumination would be making a movie based on Nintendo’s flagship franchise, Super Mario Bros., fans were skeptical. Not only did Illumination seem like an odd fit for such an adaptation, but the Super Mario series – despite being the most successful and heralded series in video games – has had a rough history translating to other mediums. Millennials such as myself may have a nostalgic soft spot for The Super Mario Bros. Super Show, but it’s not exactly the kind of show you would refer to when thinking of quality television. More infamously, Hollywood’s first attempt at adapting Super Mario Bros. (and indeed, their first attempt at adapting video games) resulted in the infamous 1993 live-action film, which was so far removed from the source material that Nintendo wouldn’t let Hollywood anywhere near its franchises for decades afterward.
How happy I am that, thirty years after Super Mario’s disastrous first attempt at a big screen adaptation, Nintendo fans finally have a Super Mario movie they can be proud of. Illumination’s The Super Mario Bros. Movie is a faithful adaptation of gaming’s best series, and a love letter to its peerless history. The Super Mario Bros. Movie is (almost) everything fans could want out of a Mario movie.
In The Super Mario Bros. Movie, the titular brothers Mario (Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day) have recently quit their job at the Wrecking Crew to start their own plumbing company. Mario is of course the headstrong and brave older brother, while Luigi is always well-meaning and supportive, but is more timid and lacks his brother’s strength. Both brothers live in a cramped apartment in Brooklyn with their parents and extended family, and though the brothers are optimistic and hopeful of their new plumbing ventures, their father (voiced by Charles Martinet, the voice of Mario in the video games) isn’t so supportive of their dreams. It doesn’t help that they are antagonized by their former boss, Foreman Spike (Sebastion Maniscalco).
The brothers Mario have the opportunity to prove their mettle at their new job, however, when a manhole leak floods Brooklyn. Mario and Luigi traverse the sewers to find the source of the problem, when they find themselves in a hidden chamber of seemingly abandoned pipes. One such pipe sucks the Mario Bros. into a ‘Warp Zone,’ where they become separated. Mario ends up in the magical realm of the Mushroom Kingdom, home of the mushroom-like Toads and the beautiful Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy). Luigi, meanwhile, winds up in the Dark Lands, home of the Koopa Troop and ruled with an iron fist by King Bowser (Jack Black). Bowser has recently stolen a Super Star, with which he hopes to conquer the Mushroom Kingdom. So Mario joins up with Princess Peach, along with the adventurous Toad (Keagan-Michael Key) on a quest to the Jungle Kingdom to win the aide of the Kong army, in hopes of defeating Bowser’s forces, saving the Mushroom Kingdom and rescuing Luigi.
It’s an incredibly simple plot, and its simplicity seems to be the main point of criticism leveled towards the film. But I find that a baffling complaint in this particular instance. Were we expecting a Granted, I understand that movies are a medium built on storytelling (as opposed to video games, which can tell stories but are built on interactivity and gameplay ideas above all else) – and animated films in particular have become deeper and more complex since the turn on the century – so perhaps a little more story was expected by some, but is it really necessary here? I don’t know, if I’m seeing The Super Mario Bros. Movie, basically the two things I’m hoping for are that it’s a fun movie, and that it’s faithful to the games. And I reiterate that The Super Mario Bros. Movie succeeds wildly on both fronts.
The film is, first and foremost, a loving tribute to the perennial video game series, and its rich history. It probably doesn’t hurt that Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto personally oversaw the film, and serves as executive producer. But it also seems that the people at Illumination are big Nintendo fans in their own right and know their stuff. The film is packed to the brim with elements, Easter eggs, cameos and callbacks to just about every nook and cranny of the Super Mario universe (as well as its parent series, Donkey Kong).
Going into The Super Mario Bros. Movie, I was worried that it would end up being a case of only referencing the obvious, such as Super Mario Bros. and maybe Super Mario World and Mario Kart, since those are the ones everyone and their grandmother knows. But the folks at Illumination have a deep knowledge of the series and did their research, because it would be easier to name the Mario games that aren’t referenced or outright depicted than the many that are. Everything from Super Mario 64 to Luigi’s Mansion to The Super Mario Bros. Super Show gets a shoutout. And it’s pleasantly surprising that even more modern Mario games are mentioned like Super Mario Galaxy, 3D World, Donkey Kong Country Returns and a surprising number of references to Super Mario Odyssey. The presence of Foreman Spike alone is the kind of esoteric callback that Super Smash Bros. wouldn’t dare to make anymore.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie is effusive towards its source material, and that’s perhaps most present in the film’s soundtrack, which is sublime. Composed by Brian Tyler, the score to The Super Mario Bros. Movie is one of the best film scores in recent memory, no doubt aided by how it weaves in many of the timeless tunes from the video game series (which I won’t spoil here, but suffice to say the music also references every generation of Mario). The film also features some great original music as well. Perhaps my only gripe to the score is that a few popular songs are incorporated into a couple of moments in the movie (I would have stuck with original music and that from the games), but at least the songs used are all from the 80s, which feels more appropriate than if they had used music from today.
I also have to compliment the film’s voice cast. Although the casting became something of a meme when it was first announced (particularly Pratt as Mario), I think for the most part they do an excellent job. Pratt leans into the Brooklyn aspect of Mario and gives his voice more weight. Although he doesn’t sound like Charles Martinet, he actually does the job at making you forget it’s Chris Pratt you’re hearing. Charlie Day captures Luigi’s loveable and naive personality, while Anya Taylor-Joy gives Peach a rougher edge, but it works for this version of the character. Keagan-Michael Key has somehow found a way to make a ‘Toad voice’ that works for a feature film, and I think it goes without saying that Jack Black as Bowser ends up stealing the whole movie. Not only does Black sound unrecognizable for the most part (only weaving his natural voice into things when Bowser loses his cool, which is a nice touch), but he manages to capture Bowser’s personality as an insecure bully effortlessly.
Also in the cast are Seth Rogen as Donkey Kong, Fred Armisen as ‘King’ Cranky Kong, and Kevin Michael Richardson as Kamek. Armisen makes Cranky Kong appropriately, well, cranky. And Richardson has the unique position of giving Kamek a proper voice for the very first time, effectively making the character Bowser’s sycophantic lackey who wants nothing more than to make his boss happy. Seth Rogen is admittedly the one voice that maybe could have given more effort. Rogen does seem to try and add a more youthful energy to Donkey Kong than he does his other voice roles, but there are unfortunately two instances where we have to hear that damn laugh, which does kind of take you out of things a little. Still, it hardly ruins the movie.
Another highlight of the film is the animation itself. Illumination has a knack for making lively and vibrant animated worlds, and with Super Mario as the backdrop, it seems to be their perfect canvas. The Super Mario Bros. Movie is not only Illumination’s best-looking feature, but one of the most colorful visual spectacles in recent memory. Super Mario 3D World seems to be the primary inspiration for the film’s version of the Mushroom Kingdom, but all of Mario’s history is drawn upon visually to create a film that is pure joy to look at from the very first frame onwards.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie is, quite simply, a real treat. It’s a loving gift to the adults who grew up with Super Mario Bros. and for the children who are growing up with Super Mario Bros. Does the film make a few missteps? Sure. Though I don’t think a deep and complex story was necessary, I understand why some audience may have wanted a little more story. Mario and Princess Peach’s relationship never quite clicks in the way it should (there’s only a couple of brief glimpses of the “friends who like each other but are too shy to confess their feelings” aspect that seems like it should have been more prevalent). And some may question why Luigi was chosen to be kidnapped in the very first movie, since it means the Super Mario Bros. don’t have a whole lot of screen time together (in fact, by the end of things, the film seems closer to the “Super Mario and Donkey Kong Movie”).
Still, these are things that can be fleshed out and expanded on in the inevitable sequels and spinoffs (a Donkey Kong Country movie next, please!). For now, we should just savor the fact that Super Mario Bros. has finally made a faithful transition to the silver screen. After all, for thirty years Mario fans had to accept Dennis Hopper with weird hair as the cinematic form of Bowser, so the King Koopa’s appearance alone is reason to rejoice.
Last year, I claimed that Sonic the Hedgehog 2 was the best video game movie, and the most pure fun I’ve had in a movie in years. And now I’m feeling the same way all over again for The Super Mario Bros. Movie. There’s room for the next big screen outing for Mario and friends to improve on certain things, but as far as living up to its name as The Super Mario Bros. Movie, the film is most certainly a superstar.