In a quest to expand the stronghold of Nintendo’s intellectual property, The Super Mario Bros. Movie adopts a fool’s quest: to rationally explain a psychedelic pastel world, wherein some mushrooms talk and others you eat to grow in size (and still others make you shrink!), that is ruled by a benevolent princess and threatened by a giant, uh, bipedal dog with a spiky turtleshell on its back.
Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic’s subsequent movie (from a Matthew Fogel screenplay) is like a remedial lesson in all things Mario, whose point, I suppose, is to serve an origin story for the new-to-Earth. But for anyone else who’s spent any time in the chipper video game world of Mario, the movie talks slowly at us for no real reason. Does anyone really need a lesson in power-ups? Isn’t it obvious what they do? Hasn’t it always been graspable, by merely picking up a controller, without explicit dictation that “power-ups give us special abilities,” as Princess Peach (anonymously voiced by Anya Taylor-Joy) explains to the cinematic Mario (a god-awful Chris Pratt) after he’s thrust into her kingdom by way of Brooklyn via rainbow wormhole?
Tedious in its articulation of the obvious, The Super Mario Bros. Movie seems both precious about and unsure of its property’s coherence. It sure didn’t have to be this way; it could have, as virtually every video game in the 40-or-so-year history of the Mario franchise, taken as a given the zaniness of this world, maybe even cracking jokes at the ridiculousness a la The Lego Movie series or HBO’s Harley Quinn. The Mario brand is so established that treating us like we’re all family could have gone a long way to make this cinematic endeavor worthwhile.
Instead, taking a page out of the Family Guy book of joke-crafting, The Super Mario Bros. Movie just flings references at us out of the back of its kart—a blue shell here, a Magikoopa in drag there. This is supposed to appease devotees, as if seeing on the big screen the things we’ve been seeing on our home screens is somehow novel enough to make it worth getting off the couch. The movie regularly plunges into action sequences ripped from the games—multiple sequences riff on the Super Mario 3D World, Smash Bros, and Mario Kart games. They’re not even as exciting as watching someone play a video game (something I’ve never loved, but can’t deny the mass appeal of given the popularity of Twitch). They’re more like watching the demo sequences that play before you hit the start button. Every time one is thrown in, the movie goes on autopilot. Action sequences should not play like half-hearted numbers in a middling musical, but here we are.
The voice acting is uninspired almost across the board, as if virtually everyone is afraid of disrupting the blandness of the script. Chris Pratt isn’t playing Mario; he’s doing a gig that he’s approaching with the apathy of a plumber who’s getting too old for this shit—not that he and his castmates are given much to work with. When Mario dons a cat costume during a Smash Bros-type brawl with Donkey Kong, the mushroom-headed Toad exclaims, “He looks adorable!” Peach agrees: “He really does.” I felt a few seconds closer to death every time a line that no one saw fit to make snappy plopped out. (Though when Mario then said, “Meow,” from behind his cat costume, the kids in the audience I was in roared. So what do I know?) Anyway, that scene ends with Mario refusing to throw Donkey Kong off the ledge, which is, like, how you win at Smash Bros. So for as much loyalty as this movie clearly feels to its parent brand, it also feels the need to tweak certain aspects so that, I don’t know, toddlers don’t get confused or something. Insipid.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie is dumb. People will say it is like this to appeal to the youngest members of its audience, but for decades Pixar has proven things don’t have to be this way. “That is how you Princess!” squeals Toad after Peach saves him from falling off Rainbow Road. That’s...a line, I guess! Every once in a while, the movie does find something in the games to riff on, like the targeting of Peach by Bowser, who, let’s face it, is a rapist or an aspiring one. As he announces his plan to capture Peach and force her to marry him, his Koopa Troopas gently push back: “Did you say marry the Princess?”; “Doesn’t she hate you?”; “What if she says no?” It’s not exactly a full-throated interrogation of the consent issues at hand, and Princess can barely assert personhood let alone feminism, but the mere flash of introspection about the games’ common storylines comes as something of a relief.
The animation will come off as somewhat generic to anyone who’s played any of the 3D versions of the Mario games, though it is at times rendered beautifully (the cloaks of the hockey-masked Shy Guy villains convincingly look like velvet, and Mario and Luigi’s overalls really do look like soft denim). Nope, still not enough.
The only real sign of life here comes in the form of Lumalee (Juliet Jelenic), a daffy, baby-voiced star bit who’s a fellow inmate of Luigi’s after he’s captured by Bowser. (Oh yeah, the plot concerns Mario trying to rescue his brother.) Lumalee feels like she’s been beamed in from another movie, not only because she’s an aggregate of several Finding Nemo characters, but because she’s endowed with the ability to see the world for its absurdity. “Time, like hope, is an illusion,” she philosophizes. “The only hope is the sweet relief of death,” is another thing she says to herself and her audience of children. If only this entire movie were told from her perspective, it could have been hilarious. Nonetheless, she is our (entirely too) infrequent Greek chorus, as it’s her we hear from last: “Now that’s a happy ending. Or is it? Because everything’s over now. And all that’s left is you and the infinite void,” she says, which almost kinda starts to get at the empty hole that capitalism wants you to feel and feed (it’s a great week for brands in cinema!).
And then she ends with: “Kinda makes you want to play saxophone, huh?” and launches into a sax-led rendition of the famous Super Mario Bros. theme. She dares to be stupid, whereas virtually everyone else just stands around being dumb as a matter of course.