Is the Nintendo world the most untapped piece of IP? Mario, Luigi and the rest of the crew have dominated video game culture for over 40 years. Yet, a theatrical feature film has not been attempted since the ill-fated 1993 campfest starring Bob Hoskins, John Leguizamo and Dennis Hopper. Gone are the steampunk influences and live action hamminess. Universal’s new foray into the mushroom kingdom is a bright, glossy and impressive animated tale that bears appropriate semblance to the game, while also having the zany plushness of an Illumination tale…
While the Super Mario world is well-rendered through animation, is the movie good enough to warrant going to theaters rather than playing the video game at home?
Not to give damning praise, but The Super Mario Bros. Movie sets its narrative sights refreshingly low. It doesn’t bog the film down with setup galore. The rules of the world are inferred, rather than stated (“Forget it Jake, It’s Super Mario World”). Instead, it trusts the cultural cache of Mario and decides to jump straight into the fun of what people love about the games.
When we meet Mario (Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day), they are Brooklyn plumbers looking to start their own business, much to the chagrin of their family and former boss, Spike. A plumbing emergency in the streets of Brooklyn prompts the two brothers to hop into action and prove themselves as the area’s premiere plumbers. Zany calamity ensues, with both brothers ending up far below the surface of the city where they discover a green pipe. This pipe sucks both of them up, spitting them out into very different lands. Mario lands in the Mushroom Kingdom, a technicolor wonderland that resembles Munchkinland, if all the Munchkins had mushroom-like hats. Toad (Keegan Michael-Key) decides to help the outsider, taking him to see Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy). Meanwhile, Luigi crash lands in the Dark Lands, getting almost immediately captured by the nefarious Bowser. Mario and Peach team up to defeat Bowser, saving Luigi and the Mushroom Kingdom in one swoop.
From the moment Mario touches down in the mushroom kingdom, we’re thrust into a goofy adventure. The film will often revert to a flat, 2D-like display where our characters go up and down various platforms and through colorful pipes, dodging obstacles and hitting power ups along the way at super speed. Character development takes a backseat to razzle dazzle. Mario’s greatest change from beginning to end is learning to stomach mushrooms, a food he despised back home in Brooklyn.
What keeps the film from being just a cheap regurgitation of IP points is the enthusiasm and infectious whimsy of the plot. These fun callback moments to the classic games are enhanced by the way they up the ante of the story. Peach trains Mario using what would be a classic level, with disappearing platforms, Piranha Plants, fire bars and more. These are all fun callbacks, but in the context of the film this scene provides an energetic training montage that shows Mario harnessing his inner strength and bonding with Peach, all while guaranteeing to get laughs from kids. When we reach Kong island, Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen) and Mario face off in an arena setup that is part Super Smash Bros, with a bit of the 8 bit arcade game sensibilities. It’s so clearly aping a video game level, but still arrives at an objective that moves the story forward. The film may be aiming for fans with these callbacks, but the set pieces and story progression are all squarely aimed at kids, who will likely eat this film up. It’s not as smart or elegant as The Lego Movie, but it’s similarly visually engaging and exciting.
In a world of shared universes, multiverses and franchises galore, The Super Mario Bros. Movie makes a great case for more entries. This initial entry demonstrates how fun the characters and world are, with quick scenes in various lands suggesting a multitude of differentiated stories that future installments could explore. Hopefully any sequels keep the virtues of this first film in mind – keep it short, simple and fun. If so, I’ll continue following Mario and Company down any green pipe. B