Video game film adaptations have gotten a reputation for being bad. Some have no story, while others rely too heavily on the obligatory Easter eggs to conceal their hollowness. However, there are a few that buck those trends to deliver something that’s a love letter to the fans and the game itself. And “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” falls somewhere in the middle.
This wouldn’t be the first time a studio has attempted to bring the Super Mario Bros. story to life on the big screen. But Universal and Illumination are the first to adapt the video game franchise through CG animation. The result is visually closer to what we see when playing the current game run. And it is fun to look at. The colors pop off the screen, with the surrounding environment embracing the playfulness of various giant mushrooms, floating landmasses, killer Koopas (living and dead), an iconic video game gorillia, and more. In addition, every frame is filled with multiple Easter eggs or a view of a world that Mario video games rarely explore. As such, not only do we get to see Mario traverse terrain, but we also get to see him smash and brawl in arenas and then race along the Rainbow Road. These sequences capture the spirit of the games.
Given that there are more than 40 years worth of material to work with, there’s an abundance of visual and auditory Easter eggs. And when that blends with the gorgeous animation, highly-kinetic action sequences, and fun one-shots, it makes for something fun to watch on screen. But those things can only carry a film so far, and “The Super Mario Bros.” movie is weighed down by its lack of story and low-hanging fruit jokes. If anything, Rogen’s take on Donkey Kong and an ultra-nihilistic but ever-so-cute Luma kept the laughs coming.
“The Super Mario Bros. Movie” follows Mario (Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day), two Brooklyn plumbers struggling to keep their small business afloat. The city doesn’t expect much from them. Foreman Spike (Sebastian Maniscalco), Mario and Luigi’s former boss from the Wrecking Crew, makes fun of them for leaving his thriving business and their DIY ad. Even Mario’s family doesn’t understand what they are doing, with his mom the only one to praise her kids – even if it’s a pitiful sympathetic one. But Luigi reminds Mario that he will support him all the way to the end and that their bond is their greatest strength.
So to make a name for themselves, the ambitious Mario and skittish Luigi set off to repair a sewer pipe flooding a city block. However, the two come across a mysterious green pipe that transports them to the Mushroom Kingdom. But they are separated, with Luigi landing in the dark lands where Bowser and his army capture him. At the same time, Mario ends up outside Princess Peach’s castle, where he meets Toad (Keegan Michael-Key). The two eventually find their way to Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy), who trains Mario to fight Bowser by making him go through an obstacle course consisting of floating Mystery Boxes, brick blocks, mechanized Piranha Plants, Bullet Bills, a Bowser cardboard cut-out, and a bean pole flag.
Thus Mario, Princess Peach, and Toad go on a grand adventure to meet with the Kongs in hopes that they can use their army and their go-karts to defeat Bowser and rescue those who are in his imprisonment.
“The Super Mario Bros. Movie” works best when it explores the corners of the Mushroom Kingdom and explains the rules of all the various power-ups scattered throughout the lands. It’s so much fun to watch how these characters embrace video game aspects of the franchise. For example, watching Mario grow in size when he eats a red mushroom, only to shrink back to his original state after getting hit, made me smile. And you can’t help but laugh as he channels his inner animal whenever he wears a catsuit or a Tanooki suit. And since this is an animated film adaptation, these characters can move in a way that we would never see if it were a real-life movie or if we played the games. And Brian Tyler’s score shows that he’s done his homework, as it pays homage to the games while adding a bit of a cinematic edge for some extra excitement and dread.
But the obligatory Easter eggs can only sustain the engagement for so long. Without a story to support that, “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” is merely an empty Koopa shell. The jokes are either lazy or just fall flat. I am trying to decide which one of the two is worse. If anything, it’s something that wasn’t written for me. Then again, it is an Illumination movie, so expecting anything more would be too much. It’s just a movie with a baseline story that is lower than the ground that Mario runs on in World 1-1.
Some relationship-establishing and climatic moments are contrived. They were thrown in as if we are expected to feel an inkling of sympathy or fear. But, in fact, it’s the exact opposite. And because the character development could be better across the board, it gives us no reason to be concerned with their plights. Bowser and Luigi are underutilized and reduced to being one-dimensional characters with dull dialogue.
The problem is that the story about the brothers and finding your inner strength had the potential to humanize a franchise that takes place mainly in a fantastical world, is overshadowed by the constant reminders that this is “The Super Mario Bros. movie.” It works way too hard to estabish the brotherly love dynamic between Mario and Luigi, so it’s perplexing that it’s a story that could be thrown away so quickly when it is busy bombarding us with those Easter eggs. And it doesn’t help when it becomes a generic rescue the princess story – no, she isn’t in another castle, although there is a joke about that – from a dull villain with some singing chops. Don’t even ask why Bowser has to break out into ballads. There’s no justification for anything these characters do outside of the Easter eggs. If these characters jump, you want to see how high. If they are racing along the rainbow road, you want to see how fast they can go. If they can throw a fireball, you want to know how hot it is. And “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” has no problem setting up those goals and going beyond them. And so it’s such a joy to see how that all plays out within the space they are given.
“The Super Mario Bros. Movie” is a movie with colorful animation, incredible one-shot sequences, and impressive attention to detail. Sadly, the film relies too heavily on the franchise’s Easter eggs to cover up its derivative story and low-hanging fruit jokes. But I can see how fans of the game from any generation will eat this up.