Thirty years ago, Disney subsidiary Hollywood Pictures produced a big screen adaptation of the popular Nintendo game Super Mario Bros., taking the sparse existing story content and extrapolating it into a bizarre and outrageous urban fantasy that ultimately bore little resemblance to the source material. This wasn’t all that unusual at the time, when film adaptations of novels, comics, and TV series commonly retained only the broad strokes of their parent works. Still, people hated it. Critics found it a weird and disjointed commercial cash grab, and fans of the games found it unrecognizable. In the years since, however, as film adaptations have become more slavishly loyal to their plots and established iconography, big, weird swings like that ‘93 Mario Bros. have been reevaluated within Millennial film crit circles. Directors Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel brought a great deal of imagination to their take on the portly Italian plumber’s adventures through the Mushroom Kingdom, the kind of oddball creativity that, by and large, studios do not permit anymore, especially when it comes to adapting established properties.
THE SUPER MARIO BROS. MOVIE ★★ (2/4 stars)
The Super Mario Bros. Movie, the new animated film from Nintendo and Illumination, is the 1993 film’s exact opposite. It is a completely on-model, by-the-numbers translation of the Super Mario Bros. video-game franchise, incorporating as much familiar imagery as possible while adding practically nothing. For the Mario fan in your household, young or old, it’s likely exactly what they want it to be. However, if you’ve somehow managed to go through life without having any attachment to the character, there is absolutely no reason for you to watch it.
Mario (Chris Pratt doing a voice, but not the voice) is a friendly but scrappy plumber from Brooklyn who’s recently started his own business with his cowardly brother, Luigi (Charlie Day). In an effort to prove their worth and drum up business, the Mario Bros. delve deep into the sewers of New York and discover a hidden portal to a colorful world populated by adorable mushroom people and one human woman, Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy), whose action hero hypercompetence has earned her a place as their Princess. Luigi gets kidnapped by Bowser (Jack Black), a giant turtle monster who wants to rule the world, but not quite as much as he wants to marry Peach. Mario and Peach team up to defeat Bowser and save his brother and her kingdom, respectively, facing a variety of challenges that happen to represent different types of Mario games and stages. There’s a contest between Mario and boastful gorilla Donkey Kong (Seth Rogan) that’s a cross between the classic Donkey Kong game and Super Smash Bros. There’s a street race down Rainbow Road that incorporates all the latest gameplay gimmicks from Mario Kart 8. There’s a throwaway joke about a mini game from Mario Party called “Toad Scramble.”
If none of what I just said makes any sense to you, then you are not the audience for this movie. That’s not to say that little kids won’t have a good time, even if they don’t recognize that Peach’s Castle in this film is exactly as it appears in Super Mario 64. The Super Mario Bros. Movie is a totally functional animated kids movie. It’s silly, it moves fast, it has a million little guys in it whose toys are on shelves now. I saw this film in a theater packed with kids, albeit the kids of parents who felt motivated to bring their toddlers and preschoolers to the earliest possible screening of the new Mario movie on the Thursday morning of its release. They all had a terrific time. The kids pointed excitedly at the screen and said “That’s Luigi!” each time Luigi appeared. The adults chuckled when one of Peach’s royal guards said “Your princess is in another castle.” It’s fundamentally the same experience for either age group. The more familiar you are with Mario, the more little coins of recognition you’re going to collect, and the higher the movie will score with you.
That is, unless you’re like me, a curmudgeon who dislikes being pandered to. (See: my reviews of Star Trek: Picard, The Mandalorian, The Last of Us, etc.) Of course I recognize the dozens of musical motifs from the 35-year history of the Mario franchise that are scattered throughout the film, and of course I love those tunes, and of course I jotted them all down in my little notebook. I appreciate that even newer characters like Mayor Paulina and the Lumas make appearances alongside ubiquitous classics like Parakoopas and Shy Guys. But that’s most of what The Super Mario Bros. Movie is: a massive assemblage of things you already like, arranged into a coherent order for digestion as a single, 92-minute product. It is the laziest possible version of a Mario movie, and for most viewers, young and old, that’ll be totally acceptable.
But here’s the thing: It doesn’t have to be.
Hang onto your joycons, because I, a film critic, am about to say something nice about those Sonic the Hedgehog movies, and here it is: They’re movies. Both the 2020 Sonic film and its sequel have their own story that is unique from any of the games, cartoons, or comics that make up the Sonic franchise, introducing their own characters, settings, setpieces, and ideas. They’re not a total reinvention like the 1993 Super Mario Bros., but they do have a spark of originality to them. They are distinct products from the works that inspired them, and they have a reason to exist, outside of the context of Sonic fandom. And, cumulatively, they have grossed over $700 million. The Super Mario Bros. Movie is not so much a movie as a speedrun through the history of Mario, from the Donkey Kong arcade cabinet to the Nintendo Switch, a crash course for people who, by and large, do not need it. They’ve either already lived it or are currently immersed in it. Will they enjoy the experience? Sure. Even I had a pretty good time, and I’m busy here constructing a rant protesting it. Will it make a billion dollars? Almost certainly, and you can look forward to seeing a new one of these every two to three years, and a Legend of Zelda movie, and a Metroid movie, and a Kirby movie, until the bubble finally bursts in 2038 and we start getting movies based on TikTok memes instead.
What I’m saying is, we can and should expect more from a movie than a recital of things we already love. I’m not asking for Children of Men; I know I’ve just bought a ticket to the cartoon plumber movie. I only ask that you add something to the recipe you’ve inherited. It can be done. Look at Into the Spider-Verse. Look at the goddamn Lego Movie. Hollywood has given you a blank check. You don’t have to write it out to “Cash.”
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.