The Super Mario Bros Movie stripped decades of lore to a near-archetypal plot and is the better for it.
Has Illumination stealthily become the most dependable major animation studio out there? Pixar has steadily been on a critical and commercial decline for years, DreamWorks is stuck in a rut of Trolls and Kung-Fu Pandas (the odd Puss in Boots: The Last Wish notwithstanding), and Disney has the creative ambition of Frozen 3, Toy Story 5, and Zootopia 2 ahead. Meanwhile, Illumination has done the seemingly impossible and made a Super Mario Bros movie that is not only pretty funny, but might actually be the best video game adaptation in terms of reflecting its source material.
The Super Mario Bros Movie begins by presenting Mario (the controversial choice of Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day) as heavily-accented Brooklyn superheroes in which what turns out to be a cheesy commercial for their failing plumbing business. With admirable efficiency, the movie shows us that the brothers get pushed around by their former boss Spike (Sebastian Maniscalco voiced just one of many deep-cut Nintendo Easter Eggs), and dismissed by their father (longtime Mario voice actor Charles Martinet). Then they find themselves sucked into a mysterious green pipe and arrive in a new, fantastical world in the midst of a crisis.
Specifically, Bowser (Jack Black, who understood the assignment) is traveling on a floating war island of fire and bones, conquering kingdom after kingdom of this world in his quest to… marry Princess Peach (Ana Taylor-Joy)? The King of the Koopa’s motivations have always been both straightforward (be evil) and confusing (is he in love with Peach or what?), but The Super Mario Bros Movie decides to turn him into a secretly lovelorn brute whose main goal is to so impress the monarch of the Mushroom Kingdom via acts of supreme violence that she has no choice but to fall in love with him.
Maybe more than any other feature film, The Super Mario Bros Movie accurately reflects the classic structure of a video game: start with your hero (Mario) who has a goal (rescue Luigi), goes from level to level defeating increasingly difficult enemies (Mushroom Kingdom to Kong Country to Rainbow Road to, uh, Brooklyn) and has to defeat a final boss (King Koopa Bowser himself). It might not be much of a plot, but you could do a lot worse when telling a story about the Mario brothers.
Directors Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic (best known for developing DC’s Teen Titans Go!) took the most direct route in adapting Super Mario Bros and it turns out to be the right one. When you have over 40 years of accumulated lore that positions Mario as either the opponent of giant apes, a puzzle-solving doctor, or a piece of paper, it’s best to keep things simple.
It is an inspired decision, because stripping down the plot of The Super Mario Bros Movie to a near-archetypal level allows for a ridiculous level of Nintendo references and surprisingly dark humor. Everything from references to Duck Hunt to a brief glimpse of a pack of Yoshis to Punch-Out to the “DK Rap” gets a moment in the sun here, which has to be a trade-off for some fans disappointed by the fact that Seth Rogen sounds too much like Seth Rogen.
Like many films targeted toward children but aware they need to appeal to the adults who brought them to the theaters, the humor in The Super Mario Bros Movie skews heavily to the satirical and surprisingly grim. A surprising amount of time is spent on the obscure star character Lumalee (Juliet Jelenic) who openly pines for the sweet release of death in a sweet, child-like voice, while scenes in which the always-cowardly Luigi is pursued by a rapidly growing horde of Dry Bones is surprisingly frightening. This is not a movie that you would think would get so dark that Bowser is openly threatening genocide, but here we all are in the pop culture of 2023.
Interestingly the single best sequence of The Super Mario Bros Movie has nothing to do with the lore of the game, but is a pre-Mushroom Kingdom scene in which the brothers find themselves battling an infuriated housedog while trying to fix a leaky sink. It has all the anarchic energy of a Three Stooges bit (as well as a delightful callback at the end of the movie) and not much to do with Nintendo at all. But it is a whole lot of fun, and that seems to be what the movie is going for.