The Super Mario Bros. Movie features countless easter eggs set to a gorgeous score, but it unfortunately falls short whenever it needs to be an actual movie.
I think a lot of people will give The Super Mario Bros. Movie a pass, simply because of the IP attached to it. Sure, the games that this film is based on may not have much of a story to them, but is that really a justification to not bother coming up with a substantial plot for this adaptation? Mario is a character that I have a lot of personal attachment to, I’ve played almost all of his mainline platforming games, I’ve raced with him, I’ve played golf with him, and I even own several figures that probably cost me too much money. At the end of the day though, as I was watching Illumination’s newest animated film, whilst I was absolutely enjoying the countless references and easter eggs in front of me, I couldn’t help but wonder if that was all the film had to be. Why shouldn’t we ask for more?
The Super Mario Bros. Movie makes what’s arguably its biggest creative risk in the opening few minutes. Weirdly, the film decides to borrow from both of the previous Mario adaptations by having Mario (Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day) start as human plumbers, working in Brooklyn. The two, whilst trying to make a name for themselves in the plumbing scene, find themselves sucked into a warp pipe and taken into the Mushroom Kingdom, where they’re separated. Mario then meets Toad (Keegan-Michael Key) and Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy) and the group decides to go and rescue Luigi from the clutches of the villainous Bowser (Jack Black). The plot is incredibly barebones, serving more as a vehicle for easter eggs and references rather than a way to tell an emotionally engaging narrative.
Now, this is the point where you may ask me why exactly I think a kids’ movie based on a video game needs an emotionally engaging narrative. Surely it’s enough to just fill the 92-minute runtime with references to the games, throw in a few licensed tracks and easy one-liners and call it a day. The film makes no effort at all to hide the fact it’s an advert.
Before the film played, the cinema I saw it at played an advert for the Nintendo Switch, and all of the Mario games on the console, and as the film went on, it made so much sense why they did that. Every single element of this film is there to get you to buy a Nintendo Switch game. Bowser’s wedding costume is ripped from Super Mario Odyssey (2017), the power-ups are almost exclusively ones that can be found in Nintendo Switch games, and even the inclusion of Mario Kart feels like a way to get you to buy Mario Kart 8 Deluxe (2017).
I care about all of this because movies have shown that you can actually make an advert for kids with a creative, emotionally engaging story, universal comedy, interesting characters and with exciting vocal performances. The Lego Movie (2014) was released just under a decade ago and was arguably even more of a blatant advertisement, but it was so much better than this because the filmmakers still tried. Sure, what they were making was a product designed to make money and sell toys, but they put their all into it and ended up with a genuinely heartfelt and brilliant movie. Arguably, they had even less to go off, as decades of Mario games definitely have a lot more story to them than some Lego bricks.
When watching The Super Mario Bros. Movie, I couldn’t help but feel like I was watching a studio on auto-pilot. Illumination is hardly an animation studio worth celebrating, but this movie might be their most safe and formulaic. It’s a movie designed to make money, sell tickets and spawn thousands of YouTube videos about easter eggs that you missed. Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen) is in the film, and it honestly feels like he was included purely to set up an inevitable solo film, rather than be there because the filmmakers felt like they had something interesting to do with the character.
The sense of the whole thing being on auto-pilot also feeds into the voice acting. Surprisingly, Chris Pratt isn’t the worst offender, delivering a performance as the titular hero that just feels flat compared to what we know he is capable of doing. Jack Black and Charlie Day are the two major exceptions, both fully committing to their characters and giving them more than the required energy, but they’re unfortunately both criminally underused. It ends up unfortunately being Anya Taylor-Joy whose performance is the weakest. Her Princess Peach just sounds bored throughout the whole adventure, and it results in an often dull second half that struggles whenever she’s placed into the forefront. It doesn’t help that the film is surprisingly devoid of any real jokes, with a lot of the comedy being tame visual gags that struggled to get a laugh out of me.
With all that being said, the film definitely has its share of strengths. The score is gorgeous, with composer Brian Tyler working alongside Mario composer Koji Kondo to create beautiful orchestral themes that take tunes from the games and turn them into anthems worthy of the big screen. The score is so good, in fact, that it makes it consistently disappointing whenever the film decides to ditch it in favour of a licensed pop song, a choice which lets down a lot of otherwise great action sequences. Visually, the film can look gorgeous, going above and beyond anything Illumination has ever done before. The way otherwise dull locations are designed to look like they could be levels straight from the games is a very nice touch that helps give the movie a fresh and unique look.
Finally, it’s worth touching again upon the many references present in the film. If all you want out of this movie is an easter egg hunt, then it will absolutely fulfil that desire. Off the top of my head, I noticed callbacks to games such as The Wrecking Crew (1984), Kid Icarus (1986), and Punch-Out!! (1987). There’s even a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from the original Arcade game Donkey Kong (1981). It’s a buffet of gaming easter eggs and callbacks, and whilst I don’t think that’s all a movie should be, if that is all you’re looking for, you won’t be disappointed. It also manages to set the stage perfectly for a potential Nintendo cinematic universe, which I would not be surprised to see appear over the course of the next decade.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie will probably be the biggest movie of the year, both in terms of box office gross and pop culture impact. I’m sure it’ll go on to spawn countless sequels, spin-offs and merchandise. However, when I walked out of the cinema, I couldn’t help but be disappointed. Is this really all we want from our animation? I think films like The Lego Movie prove that it is possible to have the best of both worlds, for something to be an easter-egg-filled advertisement whilst also being a genuinely fantastic family film. So if we know it can be done, then why should we ever settle for less?
The Super Mario Bros. Movie is out now globally in theaters.