The Super Mario Bros. Movie
This video game adaptation is blandly generic
Given how readily film studios have exploited IP, it’s a surprise that Nintendo’s video game universe has remained relatively untouched. There was the maligned live-action Super Mario Bros. (1993), but after the success of The Angry Birds Movie (2016) and Sonic the Hedgehog (2020) it’s surprising that it took this long for Hollywood to start mining Nintendo again.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie (2023) is an adaptation of various Nintendo video game properties, centered mostly on the famed Brooklyn plumber siblings Mario (Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day), who are sucked into the magical Mushroom Kingdom, where they must team up with Toad (Keegan Michael Key), Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy), and Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen) to defeat the power-hungry Bowser (Jack Black).
The Super Mario Bros. Movie is classic studio fare, being shepherded more by a board of directors than creative minds. This is seen in the fact that The Super Mario Bros. Movie is helmed by no less than fourdirectors: Aaron Horvath, Michael Jelenic, Pierre Leduc, and Fabien Polack. The group of directors surprisingly delivers a cohesive, if generic kids’ film, which proves enjoyable for young ones and palatable for adults. The rise in investment in animated features, however, has raised the bar for what adults expect, from the Pixar heights, to the relatively steady hands at Netflix and Warner Animation. Universal has had relative success with the first two Despicable Me films, but their animation arm, Illumination, has slowly devolved into delivering the bare minimum narratively, which somehow infuriatingly manages to make billions of dollars.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie is crafted around references to the video game franchise it is adapted from, and for a while this largely powers Mario fans through half of the film. However, as the narrative unfolds, viewers begin to see a lack of a clear narrative arc, and the humor begins to fall flat as it relies on winks and nudges instead of originality. There are still enjoyable moments, when particular video game elements are incorporated effectively, but viewers will be left feeling largely indifferent by the time the credits roll. In fact, if one were to strip out the Mario IP from the film, the resulting narrative would struggle to be salvaged.
A lot of criticism was launched at the casting of Chris Pratt as the titular character, since he wouldn’t be doing the iconic voice; but the American actor is able to survive with his charisma, and soon you forget the purists’ criticisms. Elsewhere, most performers seem to be on autopilot; only Black as the villain Bowser seems to be having a blast. Black’s particular renditions of an overly romantic/dramatic song were a particular highlight.
Illumination’s animation style has evolved impressively over its last few films. They are achieving a level of realism in their environments and hair that should make Disney perk up their ears. The contrast of realistic backgrounds with cartoonish characters works well for The Super Mario Bros. Movie and allows for the colors and dynamism of the Mushroom Kingdom to pop out more as a result.
One aspect that is worryingly engrained in Illumination’s films is the overuse of violence. From Despicable Me (2010) to Minions (2015), and The Secret Life of Pets (2016), Illumination seems to be stuck in the Tom & Jerry (1940-1968) style of using extreme violence on their characters as the main form of entertainment. In current times, however, this level of violence in children’s films is disturbing. During the final fight, Mario is seen bruised with a swollen eye, giving off an image of the Rocky (1976) finale rather than an animated children’s film. Adults can let these images wash over, as we’ve become desensitized to them due to their prevalence in media, but to expose young children to these images, where heroes only use violence to solve their problems, is different altogether.
In the end, The Super Mario Bros. Movie is a by-the-numbers animated studio film. There are no creative risks taken, and the narrative is guided by attempting to include as many inside references and jokes as possible. The animation style is impressive enough, but the genericism, along with a continuing reliance of violence for comedy and resolution, leads The Super Mario Bros. Movie to be another probable problematic Illumination product.