It’s odd to say this, but I’ve actually been waiting most of my life for a true Mario Bros. movie experience. Don’t get me wrong, back in the day I actually enjoyed Super Mario Bros., corny and awkward as it was (though I still haven’t forgiven them for the “Goombas”). Honestly, after waiting 30 or so additional years, I really didn’t have any expectations for The Super Mario Bros. Movie. It initially struck me as a curiosity, and I was more than a little worried by the expensive voice cast. But after finally sitting down and watching The Super Mario Bros. Movie, my inner fanboy is quite pleased.
Like any good video game, it introduces the villain first. Even from the trailers, I knew Jack Black completely killed it as the King of the Koopas. He’s brash, loud and hedonistic. He wants what he wants, when he wants and how he wants it. And much to the dismay of the nearby Mushroom and Jungle Kingdoms, he secures ultimate power in the first few minutes of the movie, stealing the Power Star from a vastly outmatched kingdom of penguins, who I assume were inspired by Super Mario 64. He marches in unexpectedly, riding less of an airship and more of a floating kingdom. So, what’s a set of plumbers and a princess to do?
One of the things I enjoyed most about The Super Mario Bros. Movie is how it introduces Mario and Luigi. We get a delightfully corny commercial selling potential customers for their newly established plumbing business. Proving what fans have known all along, that Mario and Luigi have always been plumbers. They’re also Italian, but not in a stereotypical or offensive way. I was actually worried that Chris Pratt didn’t sound enough like the classic character, with plenty of “Itsa Me” and “Wahoos”, but after the way they poked fun at the traditional accent, I’m frankly more than okay with his performance.
He and Luigi are down on their luck, but plucky and resolved to be a success. Their first job, of course, goes horribly wrong after Luigi pisses off the client’s pooch, who comes after them in homicidal fashion. Later, at home with their extended family, including the family patriarch voiced by longtime Mario voice actor Charles Martinet, it becomes clear that Mario and Luigi aren’t very well supported. But they resolve that as long as they’re together, there’s nothing they can’t do.
The call to adventure comes out of nowhere, with Brooklyn mysteriously flooded. The two brothers head to the sewers and discover an array of strange pipes. They’re not sure where they lead, but then Luigi gets sucked into one, and Mario chases after him. They learn firsthand how Warp Pipes work, but sadly get separated in transit. Mario ends up in the Mushroom Kingdom, while poor, terrified Luigi ends up in Bowser’s home turf, the Dark Lands. This serves as the excuse for what I saw as a nod to the Luigi’s Mansion games, where the green brother is harried and terrified by Dry Bones, bats, Shy Guys and one bad ass Snifit. Suffice to say, despite successfully evading the walking dead, Luigi gets kidnapped in record time.
Most of the remainder of the film is about Mario learning the ropes, discovering power-ups, and setting off with Princess Peach to get the aid of the Kongs in their Jungle Kingdom. Though I was happy enough with Pratt’s Mario, I adored Anya Taylor-Joy’s Peach. This is no damsel in distress, though a couple of snarky Toad doormen do reference the whole “Your Princess Is In Another Castle” bit from Super Mario Bros. 3. No, this princess is as tough as she is cute, and she’s not willing to let her kingdom get ruined by Bowser’s mischief. Interestingly, she’s also apparently not originally from the Mushroom Kingdom, though the movie never clarifies where the young Peach arrived from. Perhaps that’s foreshadowing for a potential sequel.
I also really enjoyed Keegan-Michael Key’s Toad. He’s more of a Captain Toad than a traditional, woe-is-me fungus. He’s a go-getter and quickly befriends Mario, though it’s somewhat of a one-sided friendship. What really surprised me was how great Seth Rogen’s Donkey Kong was. The Jungle Kingdom is like a mixture of an Aztec temple, Mario Kart infrastructure and beach-side merriment. Cranky (voiced by Fred Armisen) is the King, while DK is the pec-flexing prince. He also utterly thrashes Mario in a gladiatorial combat sequence, until Mario finally discovers the power of the Cat Bell.
While I very much enjoyed the overall flow of the movie, which is fast-paced and full of eclectic humor, I’d be lying if I said I loved everything about it. Yes, I appreciated all the musical nods to past Mario games, as well as the timely inclusion of the DK Rap. And sure, the animation is gorgeous, popping with bright colors. But after the credits rolled, I couldn’t help but lament a general lack of exposition and backstory. We don’t learn much about Mario and Luigi, other than that they apparently used to work for the Wrecking Crew. Worse, we don’t really know much about Bowser, other than his twisted infatuation with a certain princess. While I feel the characters are faithful to fan perceptions, it was a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation. We never really see them hatch, just burst into life fully formed, but without any real narrative arc.
As for big action sequences, it’s no surprise if you’ve seen trailers that there’s a Rainbow Road scene. Not only is this zany and over the top, but it ends with a unexpected attack from a Blue Shell. Mario and DK also get swallowed by a giant eel, Peach makes great use of an Ice Flower to crash her own wedding, and Tanuki Mario faces off against a kingdom-destroying Banzai Bill. It’s all amazing fan service, despite my minor issues with the movie.
That said, Illumination does their constantly amazing work with this animated film. While I would have liked a bit more exposition, and perhaps a broader understanding of the world the game takes place in, I can’t deny I had a great time watching it. I had a broad smile on my face the entire time, despite constant interruptions from impatient children in the audience. If you love Mario and want to just have a fun outing at the theater, you can’t go wrong with this one. Let’s just hope a possible sequel fleshes out the universe in a satisfying fashion.