Nintendo’s Mario has long since inspired almost every form of media I can think of, though there does not seem to have been a Super Mario Bros. ballet. Yet. Still, I would like to find somebody unfamiliar with the character and the decades of games they have been in. I want to sit down with that person and see if 2023’s The Super Mario Bros. Movie makes a damn bit of sense to them.
It barely did to me, and I have played, to different levels of completion, the titles that were on the original Nintendo and Super Nintendo systems. I never actually completed any of those games, as my interest eventually waned.
If there’s one positive thing I can say about this movie, it is that I was never bored. This is a brightly-colored candy confection that is wall-to-wall action. It features a great many characters and elements familiar to gamers, including some that are some rather deep cuts.
Which is why, given my familiarity with the source material, I was stunned to find myself confused for most of the runtime. Going back to my hypothetical person who has lived under a rock for roughly four decades, I’m betting this would be a bewildering, perhaps even slightly terrifying, experience for them. It isn’t as baffling as the live action adaption from the 1990’s, but it isn’t far off.
This movie crosses a line I have increasingly encountered as of late where a film is little more than fan service. I would argue this picture is nothing but fan service. That’s all well and good for the vast fan base this property has, but why wouldn’t those people just play the games instead?
Unless it is a sequel, I believe a picture should stand on its own. It is a given that, if something concerns a historical event, such as WWII, there is a certain amount of knowledge viewers would ideally bring into the film with them. Otherwise, I strongly believe one should not have had to have read a book, played a game or seen indirectly related movies to take away something from the viewing experience.
Let’s start with the opening scene. It is another one of those “epic” introductory scenes that have convinced me the Lord of the Rings trilogy has a lot to answer for. There’s a giant, floating fortress that is Bowser’s domain. Mind you, I only know it is Bowser because I have played those games. This weird ship looks like somebody just carved out a considerable piece of earth and somehow made it airborne. And I guess they lifted it from an especially volcanic area, because this thing is all fiery and has lava spilling out of it.
Which means bad news for the icy kingdom it invades. One of the few moments in the film that actually intrigued me was how the ship lands. It drops monstrous spiked balls on chains into the ground below and then pulls itself down to land. I thought that was clever.
But then we see the penguin warriors which reside in an ice castle and I started wondering what these things are and why they are here, except to be imprisoned by Bowser. Maybe these cute little creatures were in the original games. I don’t remember. I shouldn’t have to remember. This film should stand on its own.
As you can tell by now, I don’t believe it does. What is especially weird is how Mario and Luigi are originally from Earth, yet they don’t seem to fully question any of the deeply weird shit they encounter. They may be in awe, but they readily accept elements such as the fast-moving, floating platforms in the Mushroom Kingdom necessary to go from one location to another. I know these are from the first Nintendo game, but what is the sense of public transportation where one poorly timed jump means a quick death? It’s as if subways aren’t bad enough, with their third rails and the need to “mind the gap”. We’re talking about a BIG gap when these platforms suddenly drop away.
This is considerably different from Wreck-It Ralph, which I enjoy more with each viewing. I find it amusing the games in that picture are obviously takes on the Nintendo games featured here, such as a go-cart racing game that is obviously Super Mario Kart. But they weren’t exact copies, so the quirks of these fictional games are bewildering to the characters who are unfamiliar with those worlds and those characters act accordingly. Here, the biggest issue Mario has to resolve is the necessity of eating mushrooms, as he hates that vegetable. Ho ho.
We discover his hatred for mushrooms in an early scene where he and Luigi are having dinner with their extended family. The talk at the table is largely amusement at a TV commercial the brothers made to advertise their plumbing business. One person at the table criticizes them for quitting their jobs to pursue their crazy dream. I didn’t realize becoming a plumber was anybody’s dream. Is it unfair to say it is a pipe dream?
The family is pretty much Italian stereotypes. At least they don’t have ridiculous accents such as that which the brothers use in their commercial. Not sure why they went with that, if only so fans would recall the hideous voice acting in the Mario Bros. animated series from a couple of decades ago. See, I even have some knowledge of the animated series, yet I still didn’t fully understand this movie.
The one segment I especially failed to connect with was the one for Mario Kart. This is after Mario defeats Donkey Kong in an arena challenge (don’t ask) and the king grants him the use of his Kong army. With no real explanation, that “army” is all the characters suddenly on go-carts. There aren’t any tanks or planes or anything that might actually be helpful. Nope, we get go-carts. And they even end up on the rainbow road, which will mean fuck-all to those who aren’t familiar with that bonus track in the game. It barely means anything to me. The movie doubles-down on the idiocy by using a-Ha’s “Take On Me” in this scene, when it doesn’t make any sense for it to accompany this footage. The only connection here is it came out around the same time as the first game.
Another problem is the lack of connection I felt to the characters. It isn’t like I was expecting characters with complex personalities and subtle nuances, but each person here has only one defining personality trait. I wasn’t even surprised The Princess is really a warrior queen who fiercely defends the Mushroom Kingdom, as that is as much a stereotype of modern media as it was her being in the damsel in distress role in the first game from the 1980’s.
Or there’s Toad, an anthropomorphic, mushroom person who does little more than dump exposition on Mario upon his arrival in this crazy world. I used to think the strangest aspect of all things Mario is how his name is Mario Mario. I now think the weirdest thing is how Toad is a type of creature that is a “toad”. This would be like me changing my name to Cracker McWhitey. Also, these things look nothing like actual toads, but instead look like a small human wearing a mushroom cap as a hat. I never wondered before seeing this but, if Mario gets super-sized by eating mushrooms, what would happen if he eats Toad? In the interest of science, how can we find out?
Luigi is the one that has to be rescued here, instead of he and Mario having to rescue The Princess. Luigi does little more than get pursued by all kinds of scary creatures, such as zombie turtle skeletons, before getting captured and imprisoned by Bowser. The captives include a blue star that has gleefully surrendered to its fate. It is even happy for the impending sweet release of death it thinks will be coming when Bowser ritually sacrifices all of them at his wedding. I deeply hated this character and I have no idea where it came from in the Mario universe of games. Even then, I felt horrible when it is deprived of that opportunity for the “sweet release of death” it longs for.
About that wedding, it is the event that kicks off the third act. Bowser forces The Princess to marry him by threatening to commit genocide on the mushroom people. That Bowser pines for The Princess was a development I didn’t expect. I’m not sure why I didn’t, as I can’t think of any other reason why he kept kidnapping her in the original games.
The biggest surprise this film had for me is I at least expected it to be fun, and it didn’t even accomplish that. At one point, Mario does an “Aw, c’mon” when facing a deeply ridiculous scenario. That bit is usually a guaranteed laugh from me, but all I noticed was how cliché that line has become. I can picture a screenwriter having a hotkey on their laptop which they press to insert that into any script they’re working on.
For whatever reason, there are some A-list actors providing the voices here. Chris Pratt does his usual zero-to-hero shtick as Mario. Anya Taylor-Joy is The Princess. Jack Black is Bowser. Keegan-Michael Key is Toad. Seth Rogen is Donkey Kong. Some of those are more recognizable voices than others. Regardless, they could have had anybody voice their characters and it would have made no difference one way or the other to the film’s success. I wonder how much money they could have saved by casting nobodies in the roles.
I know there are a great many who had a blast seeing The Super Mario Bros. and I’m happy for those people. There is nothing wrong with wanting what is more of a theme park ride than a movie, something that delivers “surprises” that really aren’t. But I want more from even the slightest of escape entertainment. At a minimum, I want something where I don’t need to have an extensive knowledge of a fictional world before watching the film. This is nothing more than fan service, and I think even the fans of the games deserve better. I can’t believe I’m writing this, but it even made me respect the atrocious live action movie a bit. At least that one was willing to take some true risks.
Dir: Aaron Horvath, Michael Jelenic, Pierre Leduc, Fabien Polack
Starring Chris Pratt, Anya-Taylor Joy and a great many other people who got a fat paycheck for being largely unrecognizable here
Watched on UHD blu-ray