'The Super Mario Bros. Movie' Universal Pictures

“Super Mario Bros.” stumbles out of the blocks, but has staying power

There’s a ton of heart and fun peeking through the overcooked nostalgia bomb, but it just never got a chance to break out.

  • The Super Mario Bros. Movie
  • Directed by: Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic
  • Starring: Chris Pratt, Anya Taylor-Joy, Charlie Day, Jack Black
  • Adventure/Comedy | PG | 1 hr 32 min

By Reed Ripley

Video game media is having a bit of a moment. Sonic the Hedgehog and Uncharted both became unexpected box office smashes in recent years, and The Last of Us just finished a well-reviewed and well-seen run on HBO. It’s an area of adaptation that’s struggled for decades, yet here we are seeing hit after hit. 

Enter The Super Mario Bros. Movie, which hopes to capitalize on the momentum and establish the first truly dominant film franchise based on video game IP. While this first attempt stumbles slightly out of the blocks, there’s enough there that Mario’s power-up to the big screen is probably here to stay.  

In a way, it was surreal watching this film. There they are, Mario, Luigi, Peach, Bowser, and Donkey Kong, legends of video game culture going on 50 years, on the big screen in a loving and accurate rendering. These are characters with which hundreds of millions of people over time have spent billions of hours of time, and it’s tough to overstate how big of a deal it was for Nintendo to finally give the go-ahead to take a big swing and allow an adaptation on this scale. 

However, the weight of those 50 years and the accompanying pressure on this film to satisfy three generations’ worth of expectations bleeds through, and tips and nods to the game franchise’s history drowned out the experience. I’d be very interested to see if there were any Mario references left on the cutting room floor because it was a non-stop onslaught from minute one. The set design, the characters, the worlds, the clothing, and especially the music were stuffed with references, and it caused whiplash. Almost nothing had room to breathe, and everything being included made everything feel less special. 

Super Mario Bros. is also obsessed with its set pieces. The inclination is understandable, from both a source material and intended audience standpoint. It is a video game, after all, and the juice is in the action, namely, a squat mustachioed plumber in overalls jumping, pounding, and wa-hooing his way across the world map. Those are also the scenes that kids will probably enjoy the most, too, as they are, in a vacuum, visual feasts of cool and inventive design, especially when they use the camera to lean into Mario’s side-scroller roots. 

The focus on set pieces actively draws away from the film’s heart, though, which contributes to a zippy hour-and-a-half runtime feeling slow. There’s a nice, grounded story underneath it all—primarily, Mario and Luigi trying to make a name for themselves in the world through the strength and support of their brotherly bond. But too often, that story is sacrificed for admittedly interesting technical sequences that don’t do anything to support the underlying themes. 

Funnily enough, the voice work that was such a point of consternation upon Chris Pratt’s first utterance of “Mushroom Kingdom, here we come” in the first trailer wasn’t a distraction at all, and in fact, most of it was quite good, cast wide. The film directly addresses and cheekily dispenses with Mario’s traditional,
exaggerated Italian accent early on, and it works. Looking back, that’s probably a sound decision, as a cartoony “let’s-a-go” accent plays a lot differently in a feature-length film than in sporadic “wa-hoos” while playing a game. 

Honestly, I hope they get another shot at this (and judging by the box office projections, they certainly will). There’s a ton of heart and fun peeking through the overcooked nostalgia bomb, but it just never got a chance to break out. There’s only so many references to make, and a sequel that’s not so worried about scratching literally every Mario Bros. itch could make a delightful film. 

Reed Ripley is a local attorney with a flare for watching movies. You can find more reviews from Reed Ripley at Ripleysreviews.com

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