Super Mario Bros. Movie Review
I'm admittedly not much of a cinephile, but having experienced The Super Mario Bros. Movie myself over the weekend, I figured I'd make an exception for this juggernaut and pen a review! For the record, I am a lifelong, diehard Nintendo enthusiast. Nintendo's played an important part in my life. Like many of you, I have countless memories of spending time with family and friends playing Nintendo games together, when they would come over for a visit. As well as memories on my own, traversing the imaginative Mushroom Kingdom(while avoiding school work, naturally). Super Mario in-particular, I would say is the mascot that best represents the entertainment side of my childhood. Imagine, for those of you that grew up with early comic book super heroes, whether It's MARVEL or DC; take your pick. After decades of purchasing every comic book you could get your hands on. You finally have the chance to see your favorite characters on the big screen. Interacting, traversing, battling... This was essentially my experience with this movie. Mario was my childhood super hero. I finished almost every story-based Super Mario game that was released growing up and I continue to do so today. Now that we have revealed my slight bias... Let's-a-go to the movie review!
Before we do. Warning to those who have not seen this movie, there may be spoilers! Unintentionally of course, but they could be considered spoilers none-the-less.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie was animated and produced by Illumination Studios—helmed by Chris Meledandri— with input from creative partner Nintendo; the company that created the Mario Universe. The plot was written by Matthew Fogel(Minions: Rise of Gru, The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part) and directed by Teen Titans Go! duo Aaron Horvath & Michael Jelenic. It was distributed by Universal Pictures. The stars of this animated blockbuster are: Chris Pratt, Jack Black, Anya Taylor-Joy, Charlie Day, Keegan-Michael Key, Seth Rogen Fred Armisen and long-time voice of Super Mario for almost 30 years... Charles Martinet. It was a delight to hear Martinet's voice as Giuseppe(who could theoretically be the original Jumpman from the Arcade game) and the Mario Brother's Father during the movie. It was a wise decision on Nintendo and Illumination's part to involve him in the movie because of how closely Mario fans feel aligned with Martinet. For many of us, he was and always will be the quintessential Mario.
When the concept of this movie was announced back in January of 2018, my reaction was ambivalence. My younger self would be ecstatic at the idea of seeing my favorite video game character on the big screen, but the question remained: How would the characters and world translate from game to movie? Mario never fully speaks—save for Wahoo!, Let's-a-go! Yippie! or my favorite, Whomp! And as much as I respect and admire Charles Martinet's decades long depiction of the popular Italian plumber. I kept thinking to myself... How well would Martinet's high-pitched exuberant delivery be received during a two-hour film? I would imagine maintaining that voice, for that length of time, would be somewhat taxing on Martinet. I mean, throughout the decades of Super Mario Video Game releases, the most dialog we've ever heard Mario speak is "Thank you so much for-a playing my game!" I'm sure I'll receive disagreement here but It's my opinion, that particular delivery could be quite offsetting to traditional audiences during a two-hour film.
To build on that topic, once the voice casting was announced in September of 2021, I was completely taken aback—as most fans were. Chris Pratt, The Guardians of the Galaxy guy as Super Mario? Jack Black, the School of Rock/Kung Fu Panda/Shallow Hal guy as King Bowser? My immediate reaction was, you have got to be kidding me... I was quite honestly anticipating a disaster. Not only at the box office, but more importantly with the fans. Nothing can be more detrimental to a company and it's intellectual property than disgruntled fans. It's not that fans are selfish or feel a sense of entitlement—as the media disingenuously portrays them all too often—It's that they care very deeply, very passionately about what's brought them such joy growing up, but I digress. A vast majority of the fanbase's fears were put to rest when the first cinematic trailer was release in October of 2022. It was essentially everything I hoped for in The Super Mario Bros. Movie. The animation was stellar, the music was epic, Illumination's humor was present, and most importantly to me... Jack Black as Bowser was absolutely menacing! There was still some residual uncertainty regarding Chris Pratt's Mario in the trailer. His delivery was decent but unimpressive at that moment. Keegan-Michael Key as Toad also hit the mark. In the games, Toad has a raspy-ish/cartoony voice and it just worked for the character. After that, my high expectations were set and each of the future trailer reveals from Illumination only solidified them.
The movie opens with Bowser and his minions launching an assault on the Snow Kingdom, which is inhabited by blue penguins(first appearance in Super Mario 64) and their leader, the Penguin King(voiced by Khary Payton). Bowser destroys the Snow Castle to steal the Super Star, concealed within a ? block. With that power, Bowser begins his march towards the Mushroom Kingdom in an attempt to coerce the leader of the Mushroom Kingdom, Princess Peach, to marry him. If she refuses, he threatens to destroy her kingdom. Thus the adventure begins!
Meanwhile. On the other side of the story, The Super Mario brothers started a plumbing company and have invested their life-savings into a video advertisement for it. After a series of unfortunate events, the duo find themselves divided in an alternate universe and must save the Mushroom Kingdom from Bowser's terror. Luigi gets imprisoned by Bowser and Mario vows to find and save his younger twin brother with the aid of Princess Peach and Toad. That's the synopsis of the film. Yes, It's short. I don't want to get into what occurs too much more because that is where the joy of this movie resides. It's more of an experience than a conventional animated movie. What I mean by that is, there's an adventure. Sure. But the main focus of this movie is to service the fans, and in that aspect it hits all the right notes. I've seen the term "Easter Eggs" used regularly to describe this movie—which means there are hidden references—and I would say that the entire movie is fundamentally just that, an Easter Egg. Having seen this movie twice, I am still uncovering hidden set pieces, musical cues, item references and so on. The amount of love put into this movie is astounding. The intricacies such as, the Mario brothers casting their arms to each side of their body while running full speed, or similarly Princess Preach using her dress to float down from the flag poll, or Luigi's ringtone set to the Nintendo GameCube loading screen, or... You know what, I think that's good enough. There are dozens of acknowledgements to The Super Mario Bros. history and I don't want to list anymore because, that is what makes this movie so magical. It's not without it's flaws though.
There's been plenty said over the past two weeks about the story(or some say, lack thereof). There's no award winning narrative but the framework of brotherly love is essential in the movie and something that I've seldom seen in a kids film(only Onward comes to mind). The reciprocal admiration Mario and Luigi have for one another is conveyed authentically, as anyone who grew up in a family of brothers can attest. Illuminated crafted a warm, relatable, simple to understand family connection between the Super Mario Bros. That I know many kids enjoyed, as well as their parents. It's true that, aside from the Super Mario band saving the Mushroom Kingdom from the grasp of the evil Bowser, there isn't much more in story. So don't go into this expecting Mario to recite Shakespeare.
If you're expecting answers to any questions you may have apropos the anomalies "Why do blocks float?" " "How does Mario travel a pipe vertically?" "Why do flowers give Peach fire powers?" You're watching the wrong movie. The Super Mario Bros. Movie is a wild ride that runs at a breakneck pace and it's best to just go with the flow. One of the things I wished that was more prominent, was the relationship between Mario and Princess Peach. It's there, though the signs are subtle—tipping Mario's hat playfully, hand over her heart when Mario's facing Donkey Kong, awkward silence under a starlit sky, ect. But I suspect that will be fleshed out in the coming sequels.
How was the cast? The performances were generally solid throughout. If I were to grade them... I'd give Chris Pratt an -A as Mario. He plays a great everyman. I think his, artistic choice as an actor to only slightly change voice pitch with a mild Brooklyn accent worked well for Mario. I stopped noticing Pratt was even voicing the lead plumber just a few minutes in. I had my concerns from the trailers—as stated earlier—but I quickly evolved from skepticism to approval. Jack Black as Bowser is by far, the standout of this film and receives a highly deserved A+. His voice is virtually unrecognizable as the King of the Koopas. Well, until the Peaches song that is. Speaking of which, I laughed out loud during that segment of the movie and I was in good company. When Jack Black delivers the chorus of "Peaches", he couldn't help but break character for a moment, which made it all the more enjoyable. Black achieved the feat of portraying King Bowser as both menacing and humorous. Mario's younger brother Luigi is voiced by Charlie Day from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and is a solid A. Luigi has always been timid and cautious, from the early days of The Super Mario Bros. Super Show up to his first solo adventure in Luigi's Mansion from 2001. Known for his occasional trembling voice and panic screams, but is always there for his big brother when the going gets tough. Charlie Day channels the skittish taller brother as well as anyone could. Peach is played by Anya Taylor-Joy, who I was unfamiliar with prior to this movie. I would give her a B+. There was nothing notably extraordinary about her Peach voice but nothing negative either. It was well done enough and I'm looking forward to seeing her character expanded upon in the sequel. Next up, there's Seth Rogan's portrayal of Donkey Kong, which deserves nothing above a C+. Rogan's voice work is average in this film at best and I do not think the voice matched what we've known about DK's persona, from DKC throughout Smash Bros. I'm just being fair in that it just sounds like there's no effort given in contrast to the other characters. Toad, played by Keegan-Michael Key, gets an A+ for his totally unrecognizable voice for one of the best characters. There's an interesting interview where he describes the trial and error process of achieving that voice from his acting coach and its worth a watch. Toad has always been a hard-nosed explorer that strives to compensate for his short stature with attitude, and that's precisely the characterization we're given in the Super Mario Bros. Movie. There are plenty of side characters but I mainly wanted to focus on the star cast for now.
The animation is absolutely spectacular. This is Illumination's most technically impressive animated movie yet and their team at Illumination Paris, deserves all the praise they're receiving. From watching the trailers during the past couple months, I could tell Nintendo and Illumination weren't just shooting from the hip. They were carefully crafting these characters to closely resemble how they look in the any number of video games they star in. As a life-long video game fan, I can attest that virtually every character in the film looked, moved and acted in the way that I hoped they would. Aaron Horvath & Michael Jelenic(the directors) discussed in interviews that they wanted to blend a cartoon-like family film and semi-realistic action film at the same time. They didn't want the character to come off as elastic and indestructible, they wanted to leave you with the possibility that these characters could die. For that reason, the animation team spent a lot of time investing in the design of the individual characters and their expressions. Illumination also brought in specialized vehicle designers for the Mario Kart: Rainbow Road scene and worked closely together with Nintendo to develop new karts for the movie that drew inspiration from the video games. I cannot give this world class animation team enough credit.
As exceptional as it was, one of the things that I thought could have relied on more source material was the choice of music. Hear me out. I applaud the musical score(even pre-ordered the vinyl!) but not many of Koji Kondo's full original pieces were used. We were left mostly with leitmotifs throughout—such as Peach's Castle Theme from Super Mario 64. I also thought that a few tracks were over-utilized; The Super Mario Bros. Overworld Theme comes to mind. While it is one of the most recognizable tunes in the world and the arrangements by Brian Tyler were excellent. I wish more time was given to tracks from other, perhaps less known installments(If I were to list them, this review would never end). Or at least, more than a short snippet of the given track. I truly appreciate the new original music by Tyler. His compositions are lively, grandiose and ominous at the right moments. But I still wish there was less deviation from Kondo's works. That being said, I personally had a blast listening through the score and locating the various musical Easter Eggs—Super Mario Kart Rainbow Road anyone?—of which there are plenty. Considering the time constraints and all of the pizzazz shoehorned into the score. It's currently one of the best examples of how to navigate between fan service and original music. The homage Brian Tyler paid to Nintendo's various composers is absolutely commended.
Regarding the music selection process. I read an interview with the Nintendo team and they mentioned that after much discussion, they realized that licensed music would be better suited for certain scenes because Nintendo does not have many tracks with vocals. While that may be true, I don't agree with say, omitting the track "Drivin' Me Bananas" in place of the popular hit "a-ha - Take On Me" from 1985. It honestly doesn't match the scene of the Mario crew barreling their way to the Kong Temple and took me out of the immersiveness of the movie, for a moment. I thought there was a missed opportunity to incorporate the well known single "Jump Up Super Star!" from Super Mario Odyssey. The character Pauline sings the song in the game, so considering she's not in the movie(aside from a cameo), perhaps Illumination and Nintendo are saving that jazzy piece for another film.
One scene that caught me off guard—in a positive sense—was onboard Bowser's Ship where this symphonic metal track is played with grunty vocals. Here I'm thinking, this must be a licensed song and wishing that one of Bowser's myriad of themes would have been used. Only to discover later on that one of the few Mrio games I haven't finished yet "Bowser's Fury" was featured here. And boy does it fit that scene like a glove. I've listened to that song over and over since. I could only think to myself, this is music that Jack Black would appreciate! Let's hope the inevitable sequel allows for even more sublime experimentation.
And there we have it! This review's gone on long enough. I keep finding more I want to say about the movie but just go see it. The endurance of this Nintendo franchise shows the true staying power of Super Mario and how, unlike Pac-Man and many others, Mario transcends generations. In an interview with Charles Martinet; the original voice of Super Mario; he tells the story of how Nintendo fans say to him "I used to play Mario with my Dad and now I'm playing with my kids. It's a way our family comes together." Many of us can relate to that story. And I'll end with one last quote from Charles Martinet that describes this movie best "My mantra in life is, you just have fun. Come on, let's-a go!"