The Super Mario Bros Movie is currently breaking records left and right. It has the biggest opening weekend for an animated movie, beating Frozen 2. It’s beaten Warcraft’s record for a video game movie’s opening weekend. Its success was expected but the scale of that success was not. The question is though, is it worth this level of success? Does the Mario formula translate well to the cinema? After all, we already saw it done poorly with the disaster of the 1993 live-action movie. Chris Pratt as Mario hardly seemed like a decent choice from the dull phoned-in performance seen in all the trailers. There has been every opportunity for this to be a letdown.
I will be honest. If we’re judging The Super Mario Bros Movie on its story alone, then it’s not a great start. It’s a serviceable tale of two Brooklyn plumbers who get pulled into a magical land where a giant, angry turtle is trying to take over. Character development is minimal and predictable. It features plenty of big action-packed moments, all of which are merely tangentially related to one another. It’s a threadbare, low-stakes plot that feels like it exists for the sole purpose of connecting those action moments.
However, it sure does have a lot of fun in the process.
Here’s the thing about Super Mario Bros. It is not a story-driven game series (ignoring the spin-off RPGs, of course). Creator Shigeru Miyamoto went on record countless times about how he envisions the series to be a playground built around its mechanics. Anyone who’s ever played a Mario game knows this. The movie, too, understands it. So even though its plot is flimsy, it doesn’t matter. All it cares about is that you have fun. On that front, it succeeds.
The Super Mario Bros Movie is a joyful love letter to the games it draws inspiration from. The Mushroom Kingdom of the movie feels like a fully realised version of the one from the games. Power-ups like the Fire Flower are just standard things that exist in the world. Maps are drawn like they came from Super Mario World. Bowser dons an outfit from Super Mario Odyssey. Even Mario Kart 8 gets a lot of love. Any fan of the Mario games is going to love how authentic this world feels.
But the love for Nintendo goes further. Kong Island looks like it was ripped straight from Rare’s Donkey Kong Country games, with a few surprising nods to the newer titles from Retro Studios. The arena where Mario and DK battle is full of girders, evoking the original Donkey Kong arcade game that saw the debut of both characters. If that wasn’t enough, plenty of NES-era games can be seen in Mario’s home of Brooklyn. Most notably, we get to meet Mario and Luigi’s former boss, Foreman Spike from Wrecking Crew.
The soundtrack is a superb source of these Easter eggs too. The score blends original music with the catchy, memorable and iconic tunes of the games constantly. It’s a symphony of Nintendo history, going beyond the expected World 1-1 theme from Super Mario Bros. There are even themes taken from Mario Kart and Donkey Kong, although criminally these composers were not mentioned alongside Koji Kondo in the credits.
Sticking with audio, the performances in The Super Mario Bros Movie are universally excellent. Every actor has taken to their character with full enthusiasm, with Keegan-Michael Key’s Toad and Anya Taylor-Joy’s Peach being highlights. Even Chris Pratt is better than expected. It’s not amazing, but there’s also nothing about it that can be called bad. A real surprise, considering how many trailers featured dull, uninspiring performances from him that simply aren’t in the final movie. It’s a strange way to market the movie, especially when fans were already wary of Pratt.
The best performance by far is Jack Black as Bowser. This isn’t a surprise, of course. He’s a cartoon character in real-life and he has experience with games thanks to his friendship with Double Fine’s Tim Schafer. But he’s also just unrecognisable in his deep Bowser register and manages to blend menace with goofiness perfectly the whole time. He also gets a brief musical number that’s one of the funniest parts of the movie.
The Super Mario Bros Movie is also a visual treat. The Mushroom Kingdom has been realised as a vibrant, lively land of beloved characters. There are even some fun side-scrolling sequences such as Mario and Luigi dashing across a building site or a sequence later in the movie that could have been lifted from Super Mario 3D World. Character animation is also generally excellent, with bouncy, expressive performances throughout. It completely understands the visual appeal within the Mario games.
The one exception to this is Peach, whose model felt uncomfortably disproportionate. Her massive head and slender body often made her look like a walking bobblehead doll, making a lot of her movements and expressions feel off. She wasn’t consistently awful, but she landed in the uncanny valley often enough that I found it distracting. It’s especially strange when every other character in the movie looks great.
It’s been a good year for adaptations of gaming properties of all kinds. HBO’s The Last of Us deeply understands the complex moral dilemmas of Naughty Dog’s PS3 favorite. Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves was a typical D&D campaign at its core. And now, The Super Mario Bros Movie manages to capture exactly what a Mario game is – light on plot but heavy on pure joy.
The Super Mario Bros Movie may not be the greatest movie ever made, but it is an adaptation that recognises the appeal of the games and tries to bring that to the big screen. It’s a theme park ride of a movie designed to put a big, stupid smile on your face. Go see it with those expectations and you will have a blast.
The Super Mario Bros Movie is in theaters now across North America and Europe. It will release in Japan on April 28, 2023. Pre-orders for the Blu-Ray and DVD are available now.