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I can vividly remember playing the first Nintendo version of “Super Mario Bros.” when I was just a boy in the ‘80s. It was at a friend’s house, my first buddy to get an NES, and I went home and had a dream about the game. The goofy, jumping plumber has been a part of my entertainment life ever since. I’ve passed my love for the franchise down to my boys, who have all played the stunning “Super Mario Odyssey” to completion more than once. Mario has come a long way since the notoriously awful 1993 version of his adventure starring Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo, but the new “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” doesn’t reflect the franchise's creativity in the slightest. The latest animated blockbuster from Illumination is their most soulless to date, a film that feels like ChatGPT produced it after data and imagery from the games were fed into a computer. It is “The Chris Farley Show” of family entertainment, mistaking making references to something that was “awesome” for actually making a movie. And it is one of the most drenched-in-desperation animated films I’ve ever seen. “Remember this?!? Remember how much you liked it?!? Please like it again!” I so desperately wanted to see something that sparked the imagination of the kid in me, like that first game, or spoke to the fun I’ve had playing installments across multiple Nintendo platforms. Instead, I got a movie that's as hollow as a trailer, something that willfully avoids anything creative or ambitious. Mario and Luigi deserve so much better.
“The Super Mario Bros. Movie” opens in Brooklyn with the plumbers Mario (Chris Pratt) and his brother Luigi (Charlie Day) trying to get their new business off the ground. Some Nintendo easter eggs in the background of these initial scenes should produce a small smile from people of my generation, and there's a bit of inspiration structurally, like a clever early shot in which Mario and Luigi race through the city in a side-scrolling manner that mimics the earlier games. There’s also a nod to The Odyssey on a bookshelf in Mario’s room, implying that we’re about to watch a hero’s journey and a reference to the incredible Switch game. What follows doesn’t live up to either inspiration.
In a way that makes little sense, Mario and Luigi find a massive chamber of pipes under Brooklyn, get sucked into one, and end up in the Mushroom Kingdom, which is being threatened by the villainous Bowser (Jack Black). The notorious bad guy has found the Super Star he needs to make his final assault on Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy) and the residents of her kingdom, including Toad (Keegan-Michael Key). Bowser doesn’t just want power; he wants to make the Princess his bride, singing some truly uninspired songs about his love for her. How on Earth a film like this gets a rock talent like half of Tenacious D and doesn’t let him unleash a few clever Bowser tunes is one of this film’s many mysteries.
Although Luigi lands in the pipeline that drops him immediately in the dark lands and makes him Bowser's prisoner—a dumb decision that sidelines him for an hour—Mario meets Princess Peach, who introduces him to power-ups. And so all the question-mark cubes get a chance to shine as Mario grows, shrinks, and even turns into a raccoon. They eventually recruit Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen), race down Rainbow Road, and save the day. That’s not a spoiler if you’ve ever seen a movie.
Fans of this movie will shout from the rooftops that the scripting for something called “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” doesn’t need to be a strength. And, to be fair, there are a few strong settings in terms of design. I enjoyed the choices made by the team in the structure of Donkey Kong Country, and the Rainbow Road “Super Mario Kart” sequence is well-directed. But I would ask why fans of a franchise that has inspired so much love for generations must be satisfied with the absolute minimum regarding storytelling.
There are so few actual decisions made in the construction of this film. It’s just a collection of visual and character references cobbled together to form a 92-minute movie. Take a risk. Just do something. Anything. It got me thinking about the fun spin-offs that could exist, like a “Mad Max: Fury Road” version of the “Mario Kart” sequence that gets energy out of non-stop motion. Or a version that unpacks like “The LEGO Movie” that's more sharply aware of its references and world-building—something that even incorporates the player like that movie does in the end. I swear that almost everyone who has played a game like “Odyssey” could come up with something more inventive. Heck, almost any ten minutes of that game is more creative.
It doesn’t help that the voice work is uniformly mediocre too. Chris Pratt can be charismatic with the right material, but it sounds like he pounded this out in three hours in a voice studio. Charlie Day has such an expressive voice, but the movie barely uses him. Seth Rogen is always a welcome presence, and he at least seems to be having some fun. I wish I was too.
With the nostalgia craze merging with the power of Nintendo and Illumination, “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” feels too big to fail. That means we’ll get a sequel, and I expect another cycle of the debate of “critics vs. fans.” I am both. And I want a world where the people who made films for a fan base as devoted as this one don’t take that fandom for granted. This is far from over. I suspect we will get a ton of films from the NES universe, including “Donkey Kong Country” and “The Legend of Zelda” (and let’s not forget “Kid Icarus”). But we need creators who don’t just see these games as products to be referenced but as foundations on which new ideas can be built. That ‘80s kid who dreamed of Mario deserves it.
In theaters today.
Chris Pratt as Mario (voice)
Anya Taylor-Joy as Princess Peach (voice)
Charlie Day as Luigi (voice)
Jack Black as Bowser (voice)
Keegan Michael Key as Toad (voice)
Seth Rogen as Donkey Kong (voice)
Fred Armisen as Cranky Kong (voice)
Kevin Michael Richardson as Kamek (voice)
Sebastian Maniscalco as Spike (voice)
Charles Martinet as Giuseppe (voice)
Khary Payton as Penguin King (voice)
Eric Bauza as General Toad (voice)