1993’s live-action version of the video game SUPER MARIO BROS. may have starred the talented Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo as Mario and Luigi, but they couldn’t transcend a simplistic script and less-than-sophisticated humor. Now, 30 years later, the video game remains as popular as ever and Hollywood still cannot get the adaptation right. This new animated adaptation is entitled THE SUPER MARIO BROS. MOVIE and its illustrated look is an obvious improvement, with energy and expensive production values to spare. Still, it feels unsubstantial as a story with little in the way of character depth, stakes, or even comedy. To anyone not fully grounded in all the lore, it feels out of reach too – – like a big, brassy party where you don’t know any of the guests.
llumination Entertainment did the film, the same production company responsible for the DESPICABLE ME and THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS franchises. The animation house is incredibly talented and God knows they’ve given dozens of Minions all kinds of personalities, but here, they stumble with the very introduction of their title characters. The two Mario brothers, Mario and Luigi (voiced by Chris Pratt and Charlie Day), are presented as struggling Brooklyn plumbers trying to get ahead in their business, but exactly why isn’t made particularly clear. Equally cloudy is their heritage. Mom and pop sound like thick-accented Italian cliches, yet neither Pratt nor Day sound remotely New York, let alone products of such ‘old country’ parentage.
It feels like a pulled punch, or at least an unclear one, but the confusion continues with the rest of the setup. A main water valve breaks and threatens to flood the Big Apple, which the brothers see as their opportunity to shine, but as they rush into the sewer to help, they’re sucked into a fantasy vortex. Why such a portal is hidden in the bowels of NYC is anybody’s guess, but without any reasonable explanation, Mario and Luigi get transported to an alternate universe where there are even greater problems than busted water pipes.
The new world they’re dropped into is called the Mushroom Kingdom. It’s a candy-colored world with all kinds of odd creatures, voluminous infrastructure, and crazy roadways that look like they were designed by insane city planners. Much of it will look familiar to those ensconced in the video games, yet those tropes are never really explained either. Why is this world so beautiful yet crazy looking?
Additionally, the story skims over matters too. Why does Bowzer, the film’s villain, want to take over this lush land, only to destroy it? We never understand what’s driving the fire-breathing turtle and even though he’s voiced by Jack Black, he feels half-developed as a character. That’s especially obvious when he pines for Princess Peach, the candy-colored land’s empress. Why does he want her but wants to lay her kingdom in ruin? As voiced by Anya Taylor-Joy, she’s a plucky, modern heroine but her backstory feels short-shrifted too.
The plot truly kicks in when Luigi is taken prisoner by Bowzer and Mario sets out to save both his brother and the exotic land. Toad (an unrecognizably high-pitched Keegan-Michael Key) serves as his guide in the weird world, but when characters like characters Donkey Kong (Seth Rogan) and Cranky Kong (Fred Armisen) show up, they just sort of plop into the plot. And even with the two vaulted comic actors playing them, screenwriter Matthew Vogel’s script doesn’t give them enough funny things to say. The film has lots of silly settings, oddball creatures, and endless pratfalls, but it feels more labored than inspired.
Many of the music choices picked by directors Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic are equally uninspiring. For one big car chase, A-Ha’s “Take on Me” blasts on the soundtrack, but that scoring selection feels lazy. Should’n’t this property have a score more grounded in the well-known video game musical cues, rather than 80s pop bands?
THE SUPER MARIOS BROS. MOVIE seems to be pitched primarily to die-hard Mario fans, but one shouldn’t need the Nintendo cheat book to figure out what’s going on here. The movie has eye-popping production values and a tony cast of voice-overs, certainly, but as a genuinely compelling narrative worth schlepping to the Cineplex for, this adaptation feels quite off its game.