Historically, movies based on video games get a bad rap. Even with the recent success of streaming series and shows like “The Last of Us,” “Cyberpunk: Edgerunners” and “The Witcher,” it’s still fair to wonder if there’s been enough consistent success to wash away all the bad taste of the many unsavory attempts at adapting popular games into theatrical releases over the years.
It’s not like those past attempts have been all bad, either. Sure, there’s been more than a few plain stinkers – ok, maybe a lot of stinkers – but some still manage to bring a good time. “Street Fighter” and “Mortal Kombat” may not have been “Citizen Kane,” but they have a certain low-stakes charm to them that makes them the perfect kind of movie to toss on a random weekday night when there’s nothing better to watch.
While “The Super Mario Bros Movie” may have an actual bad rap in it, it very much has that same easy-viewing, enjoyable quality to it. In fact, it does a better job of capturing those feelings than most movies, video game-based or not.
The movie starts strong with a pair of great tone-setting scenes. An introduction to the only video game villain performance that can rival Raul Julia’s delightfully wicked M. Bison in Jack Black’s Bowser opens the movie, followed by a legitimately laugh-out-loud glimpse of Mario and Luigi’s oft-overlooked full-time careers as plumbers.
These scenes capture the pacing and plotting of the rest of the movie perfectly, even if they don’t cut Black loose to flex his full comedic might quite yet. They’re completed at a breakneck speed, stuffed to the brim with Nintendo references and strung together by a barebones, but serviceable plot.
It could be an abrasive mix of elements for those who aren’t willing to let “The Super Mario Bros Movie” sweep them away, especially if they aren’t familiar with the Mario franchise prior to their trip to the theater.
At the same time, there’s a universal quality to the movie that doesn’t really require much by way of exposition.
Let’s be honest, the story of an evil entity invading a kingdom to kidnap a princess and take over the world isn’t exactly breaking new ground at this point. “The Super Mario Bros Movie” balances its underlying themes about believing in yourself and the power of family perfectly well enough to pair with that tried-and-true story.
It’s also important to remember that Illumination rightfully appears to have made this film for children first, so there’s not much purpose in diving deep into Mario lore for a more elaborate story. There’s more than enough visual gags and Easter eggs for diehard Nintendo fans to enjoy anyways.
On the other hand, the decision to pace the movie like a 10-year-old who ate two dozen too many Easter jellybeans is excitedly trying to describe the plot to you is a bit more of a head-scratcher.
The most essential of plot points, Mario’s introduction to Princess Peach for instance, are breezed past in almost a blink of an eye. One second, Peach meets Mario. and the next she’s willing to stay up all night with him as he struggles to complete a classic video game level-inspired obstacle course to prove he can keep up with her on her mission to save the Mushroom Kingdom from Bowser.
It would’ve been nice to see their relationship develop more organically, but there’s a distinct feeling that this movie has a lot of material to cram in and wants to hit it all before the kids get bored.
That’s actually where some of the Nintendo references begin to get in the way. It’s not the fun little nods to NES games scattered around Mario’s bedroom or the background cameos sure to delight longtime Nintendo fans that do it. It’s the long, mostly unnecessary sidebars to shove in very blatant scenes inspired by Super Smash Bros. and Mario Kart via a trip to Donkey Kong’s Jungle Kingdom that pull the movie off course.
There’s nothing wrong with these scenes from an action or comedy standpoint, either. Mario’s brawl with Donkey Kong accomplishes both in spades, as does a thrilling kart segment that captures the chaos of the game. It’s just that “The Super Mario Bros. Move” could have better spent the time used on them to really focus on its main characters surrounding Mario.
Princess Peach’s backstory is mostly just a teaser for a future film, not an ideal way to treat one of its leads. Similarly, the movie really only explores Luigi’s dynamic with Mario, one of the central tenets of the film’s message, in the opening scenes before splitting the brothers up.
Most importantly, Bowser could’ve easily filled a solid 10 minutes more of screentime just reveling in his over-the-top evilness alone. His scenes easily elicited the biggest laughs thanks to Jack Black’s tour de force performance, including a viral song number that’s destined to live on the internet forever.
Speaking of performances, many people were none too happy by the casting decisions for the voicework, particularly the decision to give the role of Mario to Chris Pratt. Maybe it’s just too much exposure to the late 80’s Captain Lou Albano-led Mario cartoon that’s still ringing in my ears, but Pratt pulled off a convincing voice at the end of the day.
As nice as it would have been to see Charles Martinet, the longtime voice of Mario in the video games, reprise the role for a full movie, Pratt brought a bit more of a down-to-Earth feel to the voice that worked. Similarly, Charlie Day as Luigi and Anya Taylor-Joy as Princess Peach both did fine jobs as well.
In other words, “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” has a strong base to work off for future sequels. The voice acting is surprising solid, and the balance of great action and laugh-out-loud comedy should make it a runaway hit. If any future iterations and spinoffs can simply slow from a speedrun to a more casual evening Nintendo Switch session, then Nintendo might have the next great film universe on their hands.
Spotlight Score: 8/10