By Alex McPherson
A heart-warming and speedily paced adventure that respects its source material, “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” succeeds as enjoyable, family-friendly entertainment, elevated by a committed ensemble and the directors’ understanding of the franchise’s expansive possibilities.
Quirky, inseparable brothers Mario (Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day) operate a newly opened plumbing business in Brooklyn, trying to make a name for themselves and live up to the expectations of their judgmental father (Charles Martinet). After a hilariously unfortunate incident on their first job involving a pissed-off pooch and explosive collateral damage, the brothers decide to prove themselves by attempting to fix a sewer issue that is wreaking havoc on the populace above.
Alas, this doesn’t go according to plan. Mario and Luigi are sucked via a “warp pipe” into the vibrant, fittingly nonsensical Mushroom Kingdom. Luigi is separated en route and sent tumbling towards the malevolent domain of King Bowser (Jack Black), who has just acquired the all-powerful “Super Star,” seeking to rule the world with his army of Koopas, Goombas, Bullet Bills, and Boos (am I getting all that right?). Bowser also wants to marry Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy), a fearless leader commanding a legion of cutesy Mushroom people.
Thrown into this colorful universe of floating boxes, edible powerups, and traversable pipes out the wazoo, Mario is determined to rescue his dear brother. He eventually teams up with Peach, Toad (Keegan Michael-Key), Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen), and others to save the Kingdom and, as always, leave the door open for future sequel films. To combat Bowser, Mario must be brave, cooperative, and persistent. He can’t let other’s negative perceptions of his capabilities affect him because, by golly, this lovable plumber has to find his brother.
Indeed, “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” isn’t trying to be high art or tell a dramatically impactful story. This is a whimsical, action-packed, fast-moving, easter egg-filled watch. It falls victim to generic clichés from time to time, but maintains a lively sense of fun from start to finish. Directors Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic don’t overdose on nostalgia or low-brow humor — crafting a film that isn’t groundbreaking by any stretch, yet one that put a bounce in my step leaving the theater.
First, let’s address the elephant in the room. Much has been debated about Pratt taking on the role, but it turns out the toxicity was unwarranted. As the lead, Pratt is perfectly fine and inoffensive, using a slightly naturalistic tinge to Mario’s traditional accent that allows for range and doesn’t distract from the experience itself. His generally more grounded delivery (apart from moments of terror where he yells “Mamma Mia!” in extravagant fashion) works well with the fish-out-of-water narrative, letting the wacky supporting characters stretch their wings and lean into the absurdity.
Day is excellent as Luigi, albeit sidelined for a good portion of the runtime. He and Pratt have satisfying chemistry, and the screenplay (by Matthew Fogel) foregrounds their sense of brotherly love, giving “The Super Mario Bros Movie” an emotional throughline. This element could have been strengthened by a few additional scenes showing their background together, but there’s enough there to latch onto, and a handful of genuinely poignant moments sprinkled throughout to supplement the zanier ones.
Taylor-Joy brings characteristic dignity to Peach, despite some eye-rolling dialogue regarding her budding romance with Mario and heavy-handed, though welcome, pivot towards empowerment. Peach certainly doesn’t need “saving” this time around. Michael-Key showcases his usual great comedic timing, and Rogen (with his instantly recognizable laugh) is a hoot, selling Kong’s impulsiveness, goofiness, and insecurity. The real star of the film, though, is Black, who imbues Bowser with a deranged, unpredictable, entitled rage — especially apparent in a couple of over-the-top musical numbers, with Black belting out ridiculous lyrics with his whole heart. It’s both amusing and somewhat off-putting — perfect for a nefarious villain.
The film’s visuals, as expected from Illumination, are dazzling: bright, crisp, and filled with minute details that fans of the games will eat up — not aiming for realism in any sense and all the better for it. From far-reaching vistas of giant, candy-colored mushrooms, to a floating castle scorched by fire, and a road/race track on a rainbow, “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” quickly ferries viewers through various locales, never stopping long to smell the roses. Directors Horvath and Jelenic pack in as much as they can during the 92-minute runtime, which remains a blessing and a curse; the film moves too fast for its own good, shepherding viewers at a clip that proves draining by the finale.
The film’s cinematography creatively emulates the games’ style, too, recreating iconic left-to-right platforming, brawls, and surprisingly violent vehicular carnage with camerawork that glides through the craziness, crisply presenting the action from characters’ perspectives. Similarly, Brian Tyler’s score effectively reworks familiar Mario tracks to accentuate pivotal moments.
While still a bit top-heavy on slapstick comedy, the film’s self-aware humor mostly lands, maintaining a sense of good-naturedness (with one enjoyably nihilistic exception that I won’t spoil) that should please youngsters and prompt occasional giggles from older folks. Gamers who grew up with the characters are sure to get a kick out of certain sequences, such as a power-up-filled face-off between Mario and Donkey Kong.
“The Super Mario Bros. Movie” falls prey to sensory overload in the last act — becoming numbing and predictable amid the destruction — and the film’s pervasive ‘80s needle drops are a strange, tired choice, but the film wholeheartedly succeeds where it counts. Initial skepticism aside, it’s surprisingly engaging, and, after HBO’s “The Last of Us,” another example of a video game adaptation done right.
Alex McPherson is an unabashed pop culture nerd who contributes movie reviews for Cultured Vultures and Pop Life STL. He is also a member of the St. Louis Film Critics Association.