The Super Mario Bros Movie review: A step backwards for video game movies
The new film will keep younger audience members and Mario obsessives tickled, but there isn’t anything of real sustenance.
Time to power up: The Super Mario Bros Movie is the long-awaited CG-animated take on Nintendo’s famous plumber and his brother Luigi. And like the video game franchise it’s based on, it’s lively, colourful and crazy, if a little lacking in sophistication. Mario fans, who will revel in references ranging from mini mushrooms to cat suits, as well as the familiar chime of old-school sound effects, will be in seventh heaven, of course.
At least the ghost of 1993’s wretched Super Mario Bros can be laid to rest. The live-action tale, starring Bob Hoskins as Mario, is regularly regarded as one of the worst movies ever to come from a console creation. This latest film is certainly an improvement, partly because the animation replicates the game’s elastic, ceaseless energy.
The set-up, if you can call it that, has Mario (voiced by Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day) set out to start a new plumbing business in Brooklyn, where they live with their super-cliché Italian-American, spaghetti-serving family. They’ve invested all their money in a TV commercial, which others find hilarious. “You’re a joke and you always will be,” says one bully. All the moustache-wearing Mario wants to do is save Brooklyn and be heroic.
After an aborted attempt to stop a huge burst water main in the city – one that sees them dive into the sewer system – they find a portal into another universe. Luigi is flung into the Darklands, a creepy, lava-filled nightmare, while Mario lands in Mushroom Kingdom. There he meets Toad (Keegan Michael-Key), who takes him to meet Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy), the ruler of this day-glo, fungi-filled paradise.
Mushroom Kingdom is under threat from Bowser (Jack Black), a turtle-like villain (who keeps making jokes about coming out of his shell). He’s already captured a power-bestowing star, incarcerating some penguin folk while he’s at it. Now he’s got his heart set on Mushroom Kingdom and, amusingly, on marrying Peach – fully in the belief that she’ll willingly accept his proposal. Desperate to retrieve his brother, Mario joins forces with Peach.
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Directed by Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic, who previously collaborated in 2018’s Teen Titans GO! To the Movies, the film does a good job of replicating various Mario games. A scramble to get across town, cut to the Beastie Boys’ No Sleep Till Brooklyn, sees the sibling plumbers weave their way through a building site in true platform-game style. Inevitably, once in the Mushroom Kingdom, they’ll be constructing their own vehicles and hitting the rainbow road in a souped-up, big screen take on Mario Kart.
Is this enough for a movie, though? Not even close. The voice cast is decent enough – Seth Rogen as Donkey Kong a highlight – but Pratt’s Mario feels as generic as the choice of '80s pop tunes (Take On Me, Holding Out for a Hero) on the soundtrack. Some offbeat choices work, like Jack Black’s School of Rock moment as the love-struck Bowser sings about Peach at the piano. But, like eating candy-floss and jumping on a fairground ride, the film’s dizzying, hyperkinetic visuals will eventually make you nauseous.
After HBO’s The Last of Us showed just how stellar video game adaptations can be, this feels like a step backwards, or at least to the side. Like a stalled Mario Kart, maybe. Despite some sporadically amusing moments, like Luigi complaining about his “bad knees” as they run and jump, you’ll likely find yourself wishing you were anywhere else, as the final act descends into a blur of chases, chaos, and carnage. True, it’ll keep younger audience members and Mario obsessives tickled, but there isn’t anything of real sustenance here.