The Super Mario Bros. Movie

Review by Michael Leader @michaeljleader

Directed by

Aaron Horvath Michael Jelenic


Anya Taylor-Joy Charlie Day Chris Pratt Jack Black


Illumination + Nintendo. C’mon, how bad could it be?


Corporate entertainment at its most creatively bankrupt. It zips by, though.

In Retrospect.

Justice for Bob Hoskins.

Nintendo and Illumination team up to give everyone's favourite fictional plumber an animated makeover, with soulless results.

It’s fitting that The Super Mario Bros. Movie starts with a Minion in Mario Kart get-up. This glossy slice of kid-distracting entertainment comes from the meeting of two companies – Nintendo and Illumination – that hold sway over the hearts and minds of youngsters the world over. With the combined power of the colourful characters of the Super Mario universe and the dark arts of the studio behind Despicable Me, Sing, The Secret Life of Pets and, yes, Minions, it must surely be time to update a classic meme. Whereas in 2009 it was Nintendo’s creative mastermind Shigeru Miyamoto and then-company president Satoru Iwata holding aloft their wildly successful DS console, now Miyamoto and Illumination CEO Chris Meledandri could stand alongside a poster for the film, grinning while declaring, “IT PRINTS MONEY!!!”

In seeking to eradicate the memory of Super Mario Bros., the notorious 1993 box office bomb that still serves as the worst-case-scenario for video game movies, The Super Mario Bros. Movie keeps it simple and plays it safe. Faithfulness and reverence are all the rage with console-to-screen adaptations, but unlike, say, The Last of Us, the Mario franchise has rarely prioritised storytelling. Instead, its visual encyclopaedia of characters and locations acts more as vibrant stage-setting for precise platforming perfection, with their elegantly-made games free of such fuss as lore and backstory beyond a back-of-a-cigarette-packet set-up. For going on 40 years, the magic of Mario has been in the joy of play.

And so, this new film is remarkably slight, superficial, and short, too, running at barely 90 minutes long even with credits included. Its wafer-thin plot pits Mario (Chris Pratt), a hapless Brooklyn plumber teleported to the technicolor wonderland of the Mushroom Kingdom, against the power-hungry King Koopa, Bowser (Jack Black), who has seized a Super Star and is hellbent on burning the world to the ground and wooing Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy) in the process.

Where other brand-exercise flicks like The Lego Movie or directors Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic’s previous feature, Teen Titans Go! To the Movies, both found space to comment on the power and pomp of the properties themselves, The Super Mario Bros. Movie is disappointingly on-rails. The animation, too, is polished but not exceptional, cutting loose in some nicely-conceived sequences that lock the camera’s perspective to a 2D side-scrolling plane, but otherwise trading in spectacle that can only approximate the rush of actually playing the Mario games.

Mostly, that means scenes depicting, for example, a mad dash through Mario Kart’s Rainbow Road racecourse, or a head-to-head arena battle between Mario and Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen) that evokes Super Smash Bros., reminding us of the fun we could be having if we’d decided to stay at home. At least there, we wouldn’t have to live in fear of the film’s incongruous pop-rock needledrops, from a training montage backed by ‘Holding Out for a Hero’, to a pimp-my-ride Kart-building scene set to the opening riff of AC/DC’s ‘Thunderstruck’.

What The Super Mario Bros. Movie lacks in imagination and creative flair, it makes up for in endless Easter Eggs, knowing references and cheeky cameos. It’s a relentless barrage of iconography, pulling from the whole span of Mario history and even scraping the barrel of the Nintendo archive. Backgrounds are stuffed with such titbits, from sleek glass ornaments shaped like Pikmin, to bedroom posters idolising the vehicles and racers from F-Zero, to the photos and memorabilia that adorn every square inch of the so-called Punch-Out Pizzeria.

Mario himself owns a vintage NES console, which suggests that, in this world, Nintendo instead built its empire on the Kid Icarus franchise, while the plumber’s ringtone is the distinctive plinky-plonk jingle that heralded the powering-up of the GameCube console. Elsewhere, composer Brian Tyler sets a record for motifs-per-minute as familiar musical themes penned by Nintendo legend Koji Kondo and his collaborators are crammed into the film’s score.

It’s what the studios want us to believe ‘the fans’ want, but, for this lifelong Mario devotee, it is nothing short of exhausting. These nostalgic pokes in the ribs only work as a calculated distraction from just how undercooked the film is. Beyond its whizz-bang pacing, dazzling sugar-rush colours and the odd Jack Black piano ballad interlude, all that The Super Mario Bros. Movie has to offer is its intellectual property, and it never convinces as anything other than a tidy opportunity to push both brand and product.

Since the 1980s, Nintendo has built its reputation on gleeful, ingenious entertainment that delights in design. Conversely, The Super Mario Bros. Movie is empty-calorie, time-filling amusement for the school holidays. In other words, a licence to print money.

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Published 5 Apr 2023

Tags: Aaron Horvath Anya Taylor-Joy Charlie Day Chris Pratt Jack Black Michael Jelenic The Super Mario Bros Movie


Illumination + Nintendo. C’mon, how bad could it be?


Corporate entertainment at its most creatively bankrupt. It zips by, though.

In Retrospect.

Justice for Bob Hoskins.

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