The Super Mario Bros. Movie (2023)
Plumbing’s our game.
Being a long-time fan of the Mario Bros., an arcade/ videogame series developed and published by Nintendo in 1983, Illumination’s animated The Super Mario Bros. Movie was everything I could have hoped for and more. The film is guaranteed to please avid and die-hard fans of the mustachioed Italian plumber brothers, Mario and Luigi, who’ve inspired three generations of gamers. Every frame of this new film is jam-packed with playful winks, nods, and references, clearly made by people who love and admire the games. The film goes back to Mario’s Jumpman roots in a scene that introduces us to Donkey Kong; it pays homage to classic 2D Mario levels and even has time to fit in a show-stopping kart race, which is the sure-fire highlight. The movie essentially references the entire Mario Bros. videogame history; it’s a celebration of all things Mario, a fun and vibrant all-ages adventure in the spirit of the games, and I’m here for it!
For anyone unfamiliar with the platform game series — basically, anyone that’s been living under a mushroom — Super Mario Bros. was first released on home consoles in 1985, on the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), and has since gone on to spawn a ton of other sequels and spin-offs — my personal favorite is Mario Kart 8 Deluxe on the Nintendo Switch, which I still play to this very day. And, if anyone’s wondering why it’s taken decades for the Mario Bros. to leap back onto the big screen, it’s because the 1993 live-action Super Mario Bros. film (which starred Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo as the titular brothers) was a critical and commercial failure — but, hey, I didn’t mind it, even though the film has very little to do with the actual videogames. Because of this, Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto was reluctant to license the IP for further film adaptations until recently, when, in 2018, Nintendo announced it would collaborate with animation juggernaut Illumination — the guys responsible for those lovable yellow, capsule-shaped Minions, who pop up in a goofy Mario Kart gag in the studio’s intro logo — on a new Mario Bros. project. So, it’s ‘Mario Time’ again; time to revisit Mario in the multiplexes.
The story begins in Brooklyn, New York, where we meet Mario (voiced by Chris Pratt) and his younger, slimmer fraternal twin brother, Luigi (voiced by Charlie Day), who’ve both just quit their steady plumbing gig to launch a small business, named the Super Mario Bros.; there’s a cheesy little commercial here, which presents the bros and includes some neat vintage videogame cover art and text designs in their self-promotion. Being from a large Italian migrant family, Mario and Luigi’s parents and relatives disapprove of their career choices, calling the brothers brash and irresponsible and claiming their venture is destined to fail. After their first solo job goes pear-shaped due to a mishap with their client’s dog, Mario and Luigi attempt to save Brooklyn when one of the underground water mains bursts, causing a mid-city flood.
While trying to rescue the locals from the floodwater, the brothers find themselves beneath the city, in a mysterious subterranean zone filled with pipelines and shutoff valves. Of course, one of these tubes is a gateway to another world. Before long, the Mario Brothers are sucked into a strange new dimension via a green warp pipe. Mario and Luigi, however, are split up while riding interdimensional streams, with both winding up in different lands. Luigi is spat into a spooky, dark forest, reminiscent of the Luigi’s Mansion game series, where the cowardice, worrisome Luigi finds himself a prisoner of the mask-wearing Shy Guys — slightly more uncommon enemies in the videogame series — after trying to fend off a hoard of menacing Dry Bones. Mario, though, drops into the more pleasant Mushroom Kingdom, befriending a brave humanoid mushroom named Toad (voiced by Keegan-Michael Key), who’s keen to help his new ‘friend’ out — Mario, though, is far from pleased, having somewhat of a dislike for mushrooms (and we all know what triggers a power-up in the games!)
Toad soon takes Mario to meet with the kingdom’s leader, the confident and headstrong Princess Peach (voiced with spunk by Anya Taylor-Joy), who may be able to assist Mario in locating his missing brother. Toad, you see, fears that Luigi has fallen captive to the fearsome fire-breathing Bowser (Jack Black), the evil king of the turtle-like Koopas, who’s gotten his hands on a rare Power Star, which he recently stole from the crown-wearing Penguin King (voiced by Khary Payton) and his cute blue penguin troops. Toad believes that Mario could aid the Princess, as she is about to set off on a quest to retrieve the Star to save her realm, traveling to the Aztec-inspired Jungle Kingdom to ask the monkey chief, Cranky Kong (voiced by Fred Armisen), for a lend of their army. However, Peach puts Mario to the ultimate test before agreeing to let him accompany her. Thus, the short, stocky Mario must navigate through interactive platforms filled with falling blocks and other dangers to prove his worth in a sequence that brilliantly homages traditional 2D level design; this endurance course features gauntlets that resemble regular videogame levels, which Mario must restart every time he ‘loses a life.’
Written by Matthew Fogel, The Mario Bros. Movie has the same zany energy of last year’s excellent Minions: The Rise of Gru, which Fogel also co-wrote. The film is fast-paced and funny but not to the point where it becomes overwhelming or alienating to newcomers. Instead, filmmakers take their time to develop characters and worlds, even providing visual cues such as maps, which show audiences all the nearby lands and their proximity to one another; we catch a quick glimpse of Yoshi’s Island and get to see the Sand Kingdom from Super Mario Odyssey. And while on their journey, the characters can also be spotted trekking through what appears to be the Bob-omb Battlefield, although a highly detailed version of it. As is the case with most family pictures, the Mario Bros. Movie carries strong take-home messages, driving home its key theme of never giving up — if at first you don’t succeed, try again, just like beating a level in a videogame; practice and perseverance create winners.
Directed by Aaron Horvath, Teen Titans GO! To the Movies (2018), and producer-turned-filmmaker Michael Jelenic, who’s spent years working on Teen Titans GO! the animated series, the Mario Bros. Movie embraces the ingenuity and creativity of the videogames on which it’s based — the film is so bright, colorful, detailed, inventive, and imaginative. There’s a visually stunning sequence where Peach gets a flower power-up, the scene taking place in a field lit by Fire Flowers — heck, all the Nintendo nerds will geek out over the Princess’ costume upgrade, Peach transforming into her Fire Power dress from Super Mario 3D World. There’s another fantastic moment that directly references 1981’s Donkey Kong, the coin-operated arcade game that introduced both Mario/ Jumpman and Donkey Kong to the world. Here, Mario goes up against a peck-popping Donkey Kong (voiced by Seth Rogen), who’s a chest-pounding showoff. I couldn’t wipe the grin off my face, watching the pair duke it out in an arena that mimics the old school game, with red scaffolding, ladders, and barrels, which the monkey hurls at his enemy.
The pinnacle, though, is the whole Mario Kart portion of the film. From the kart-selection process, where characters use a slot-style menu device to choose their vehicle, wheels, and glider, just like players do in Mario Kart 8, to the inclusion of the iconic Rainbow Road, the only racecourse that features in all the Mario Kart games, which looks magic in its cinematic incarnation. And the race itself is expertly choreographed and just wonderful to witness up on a theatre screen; it includes the famous ‘leap of faith’ shortcut, typically used to exploit one’s way to victory, anti-gravity driving, and that inescapable pesky Blue Shell, an airborne obstacle that is near-impossible to evade. This sequence is simply worth the price of admission.
The animation and character designs are well done and do justice to the game franchise, with artists modernizing the settings and characters but keeping their original aesthetic. Mario and Luigi’s iconic look has been perfectly recreated, both brothers recognizable in their red or green plumbing gear. So too is Princess Peach, with her defined golden curls, who gets to shine in a number of her playable outfits, mainly the bright pink, polished cotton puff-sleeved gown that she’s famous for.
There’s so much to spot and smile about in the entire film, especially for those familiar with the Mario-verse. Classic enemies are peppered throughout the adventure, sprinkled across the lands; we see the aquatic Cheep Cheeps and Bloopers, which are not under Bowser’s command, along with Bowser’s right-hand man, Magikoopa Kamek (voiced by Kevin Michael Richardson). As for the rest of Bowser’s arsenal, we have the Koopa Troopas, Goombas, Piranha Plants, Bomb-ombs (King Bomb-omb appears in a short hilarious scene), Swoops, Snifits, and even Spinys, referred to as ‘whatever those things are’ by King Koopa himself. And there are a couple of huge moments, one featuring a Bullet Bill and another with a colossal Maw-Ray, but I’ll stop before spoiling anymore. To top it all off, filmmakers have used recognizable sound bites, themes, and familiar riffs from the game series, so much so that Koji Kondo has been credited for his original Nintendo music alongside the film’s composer Brian Tyler, Chip ’n Dale: Rescue Rangers (2022). Some of the needle drops are an odd choice, though, and come off as jarring, the selection of music having very little to do with Mario or the games.
The voice talent is generally first-rate; all the actors seem to be relishing their respective roles, happy to be part of this fantastical, larger-than-life videogame adaptation. Chris Pratt does an admirable job lending his chops to protagonist Mario, despite the social media backlash he received after the first trailer for the film hit the internet, with many criticizing Pratt’s Mario voice for being too similar to the actor’s own speaking voice. Bizarrely, Pratt has given Mario more of a Brooklyn accent in the film, which randomly switches to that classic Italian when uttering several of the character’s famous lines — think “Mama Mia!” The cast standout is hands-down Jack Black, who’s relishing his role as the villainous Bowser, exploding with enthusiasm, the bad guy hovering around in an intimidating airborne volcanic castle island. Black really plays into the silliness of the whole role; Bowser is intent on marrying the Princess, whom he’s never officially met, planning on ruling the kingdom with his new bride. Black also gets a chance to belt out a couple of variations of a new song titled ‘Peaches,’ which feels totally up the actor-musician’s alley. The weakest link in the entire ensemble, I feel, is Seth Rogen, who does nothing to differentiate his voice while providing vocals for Donkey Kong.
Boasting the same quality, respect, and reverence to the intellectual property as the recent Sonic the Hedgehog films, The Super Mario Bros. Movie is a foolproof winner and difficult to 1UP as a Mario vehicle. But I’m a Mario Bros. fanboy, so my opinion may come off as a smidge biased. Still, I genuinely can’t see anyone exiting the theatre not having a great time with this one. If anything, the inclusion of the starry creature Lumalee (voiced by Juliet Jelenic), albeit an oddly morbid take on the character, has me reeling with excitement for a future Rosalina appearance, which may set up a potential Extended Nintendo Universe further down the line. If done correctly, this could hopefully lead to a Super Smash Bros.-style brawl event. I’m game!
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by Stu Cachia (S-Littner)
The Super Mario Bros. Movie is released through Universal Pictures Australia