Although some seek to reappraise it as misunderstood, Nintendo would like to leave their live-action 1993 Super Mario Bros. movie in the past. The initial adaptation of the beloved game series was such a critical and commercial bomb that it made Nintendo swear off the major motion picture business for the foreseeable future. Enough time has passed and now Nintendo is ready to dip their toes back into adapting their properties for non-interactive media, starting once again with their biggest IP. A collaboration between animation juggernaut Illumination’s Chris Meledandri and series creator Shigeru Miyamoto, there’s a considerable amount of anxious hype for 2023’s The Super Mario Bros. Movie. Fear not, as the team behind Mario’s second go at a theatrical feature nail it with all the grace of a perfect speedrun of the original game.
By far the biggest eyebrow-raiser when the ball got rolling on The Super Mario Bros. Movie was the casting of Chris Pratt as Mario. On paper, his casting and the prioritization of celebrity voice actors over veteran voice talent don’t bode well. Thankfully, Pratt steps into the role with his recognizable charm. His affable, though clumsy, Brooklyn plumber is about as good an adaptation of the character as you can hope for, albeit trading in the high-pitched voice from the games for a more classic Brooklyn accent. Charlie Day as the loving, fear-prone brother Luigi is even better. Right from the onset, as these two struggle to get their burgeoning plumbing business off the ground, they’re swell adaptations of the most iconic duo in gaming, lovingly translated into another medium. One can immediately see the great care that was taken, and that’s before we enter the Mushroom Kingdom.
On a particularly tough job, Mario and Luigi get sucked into a portal via a mysterious pipe, getting separated. Mario is spit out in the Mushroom Kingdom, a gorgeous world populated by Mushroom-like Humanoids known as Toads ruled over by the benevolent Princess Peach, played by Anya Taylor-Joy injecting Peach’s requisite grace with a bit of spunk. Emphasis on gorgeous, as this is in the upper tier of American animation. Under directors Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic (Teen Titans Go!), the Mushroom Kingdom is a lush world, bathed in near-photorealistic lighting that stupendously highlights the lively character designs. Much like the plumbers themselves, it seems like Horvath and Jelenic took the task of retaining the iconic nature of the settings and upping the ante for the cinematic canvas to heart.
The rest of the locales fare just as well, including, but not limited to, the wild jungles of the Kong Kingdom, the fiery rock of Bowser’s floating castle, and the frigid Ice Kingdom. Moreover, none of the “video game-yness” of the locations is lost for so-called realism. Power-up blocks and obstacles abound! The rich worlds are populated by a myriad of wacky creatures. Jack Black is clearly having the time of his life and relishing the chance to play the big bad villain Bowser, who holds Luigi captive and sets his sights on the Mushroom Kingdom to ask for Peach’s hand in marriage. Keegan Michael-Key is pitch-perfect as firecracker sidekick Toad and it’s a real treat to hear Seth Rogen and Fred Armisen steal a variety of scenes as Donkey and Cranky Kong, respectively.
The script from Matthew Fogle takes Mario on an unbelievably entertaining tour through these worlds and characters at a breakneck pace. Running at 93 minutes, that pace can often feel constraining, allowing less time for moments to breathe with characters who are well-developed enough to deserve those moments. Action is prioritized, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing whenever the action sequences land this well. Some of the most exhilarating action set pieces this side of The Adventures of Tintin and Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, The Super Mario Bros. Movie captures the momentum and the moment-to-moment obstacle avoidance of the Nintendo games in such sequences as Mario and Peach training on a makeshift course, a show-stopping smackdown with Donkey Kong, and a climatic Kart Race that plays with gravity in clever ways.
Then there’s the “Illumination” of it all. Although The Super Mario Bros. Movie mostly trusts in the story it’s telling, it can’t help but slip in some of the most grating hallmarks of the House of Minions. There are a couple of moments where those phenomenal action sequences are interrupted for cheap slapstick, or rude humor creeps its way in. The worst offenders by far are some head-scratching needle drops of popular music. Who needs to hear “Holdin’ Out for a Hero” in an animated movie again, or any movie for that matter? And what exactly does AC/DC have anything to do with Mario or Nintendo? This is especially off-putting when the score for the film by Brian Tyler already beautifully weaves in the original game themes by Koji Kondo. It takes one out of the world of the movie and bows to the worst trends of family-oriented animation.
Nevertheless, that’s more of a misstep than a game over. The Super Mario Bros. Movie is clearly made by people who love and understand the enduring appeal of the video games, with plenty of unobtrusive easter eggs serving as little mini-movies in and of themselves. What The Super Mario Bros. Movie is not, however, is solely a nostalgia trip. The iconic plumber’s big screen re-do is a proud celebration of the character’s appeal. With jaw-dropping visuals, a highly entertaining voice cast, and an adventurous spirit, The Super Mario Bros. Movie levels up the video game adaptation to heights only dreamed of by wide-eyed kids playing the original video game back in the ‘80s. Touché, Nintendo.