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From what has been discussed and seen from recent films and shows, the video game adaptation curse seems to have been lifted. I don’t fully agree with that statement, but it is definitely a much better place than previous entries that included stuff like Double Dragons, DOOM, House of the Dead, Monster Hunter, Alone in the Dark, and you get the idea. Sure, some of them are still not perfect like the Sonic movies, but when you get stuff like Cyberpunk: Edgerunners, then you know that times have changed. Who would have thought that it took just getting the right people who actually cared about the material and a lot of involvement from the studio to make the films or shows that actually work and feel like they are from the same franchise. Granted, being 100% loyal to said source material isn’t necessarily going to result in a good adaptation since you need a story and characters to invest into, because otherwise, why would someone who isn’t a fan of the game in question care about what’s going on in the story? Anyway, 2023 decided to be weird with how it took until April to have our first major studio theatrical animated feature, and it just so happens to be a video game adaptation. Let’s talk about The Super Mario Bros. Movie!
The movie is directed by Aaron Hovath and Michael Jelenic of Teen Titans Go!! fame and is written by Matthew Fogel. Of course, the animation is handled by Illumination Entertainment. We follow Mario and Luigi, voiced by Chris Pratt and Charlie Day. They just started their own plumbing company and messed up on their first gig. Beaten down and disappointed with their lack of achievements and support from their family, all seems lost with the duo until Brooklyn gets flooded and the two go save the city. Unfortunately for them, they find themselves getting warped to the Mushroom Kingdom that is led by Princess Peach, voiced by Anya Taylor-Joy, who is dealing with the looming threat of invasion from Bowser, the king of the koopas, voiced by Jack Black. Can Mario save the kingdom and get his brother back who has been kidnapped by Bowser?
This film has been getting a lot of people on social media in a firestorm about who is in the right, and whether the critics are being too grumpy about a simple animated film aimed at overall audiences and crowds, or are audiences too forgiving of lightweight entertainment and not supporting the “real” art that gets released when most filmgoers know that some films won’t appeal to them. Plus, it helps that until this film was released, the family film landscape in theaters was pretty much dead. For those that say superhero films are default family entertainment are also dismissing the fact that a lot of superhero media right now is absolutely not for families, unless they are hardcore watching Invincible and The Boys at age 5. For some reason the industry thought that superheroes were all audiences needed, and considering that the first two have underperformed due to a multitude of reasons, it’s no shock that families showed up in droves for this Mario movie.
So, who is in the right here? Hate to say the safe answer, but it’s what I honestly think. Both are right. For example, while I don’t think the lightweight story hurts the overall experience, I get why people have criticized it. The thing about the Mario franchise is that unless you dive into the spin-offs, the franchise is very light on plot. With the few exceptions where Peach plays alongside Mario and Luigi, it’s always about Mario stopping Bowser. They weren’t going to turn this film’s plot into one of Pixar’s more methodical and philosophical stories. Asking for a deep plot with Mario is like asking Sonic to not have an angsty teen persona, it won’t happen. Now, if they adapt something like Paper Mario or Super Mario RPG, then I will get frustrated with that plot being light on story. With all that said, the story does fall flat in a few spots. It introduces a ton of story beats that could have added a little more meat, with an overall story like Luigi getting over his cowardice, Mario and Donkey Kong’s disconnection with their dads who see them as disappointments, or heck, Mario and Luigi’s dynamic, since for a film called The Super Mario Bros. Movie, it is rather light on having them on the screen at the same time. The entire plot basically separates them for about 80% of the time and that feels a tad disappointing, because there are story beats that would have strengthened the film all throughout the runtime. It’s pretty much the beginning and the third act where they get to be together and they wrap everything up fairly easily. I’m sure there was some situation of how the characters would be portrayed since Nintendo was actually collaborating with Illumination this time around and they couldn’t go too far with the characters and stories, but in some ways, that works to its advantage. No matter how much you love the recent live-action Sonic films, those films pander to casual audiences a bit too much. You could argue they aren’t good at adapting the Sonic storylines either, if you really want to discuss how good they are as adaptations. The Mario movie on the other hand does none of that. It’s a purely straight forward film with very few references outside of the film’s distracting use of 80s music. Mario doesn’t say or reference any memes, and I think there is appeal to that. The appeal of Mario is how safe it is compared to other franchise leads. He hasn’t had to do stuff like rap or cater to the social media crowd to have a lasting appeal. Granted, it also helps that the franchise has some of the best games of all time. It had enough charm and appeal to not alienate everyone, and whether you hate it or love it for that reason, it works here. The only references getting made are basically Mario and or Nintendo-focused with references to Star Fox, Punch Out!!!, and Kid Icarus among many others. Even the minor antagonist Spike is a reference to The Wrecking Crew game that is Mario adjacent. I did hear some people say it has too many references, but you all eat up the MCU and other comic book movie references, so maybe pick a lane when you complain about references. It’s at least more loyal than that disaster that was the 90s Mario movie that was basically lacking in anything Mario for a majority of its runtime and yet people are trying to claim it as an unsung masterpiece that is actually loyal to the game when it’s really not. Sometimes reevaluating a film that got panned doesn’t need to happen. Anyway, if you do feel the Illumination movie vibe at all, it would probably come from Bowser and his dynamic with Kamek, but if you have played the games like Paper Mario or Super Mario RPG, then you know that their personalities in the film would be pretty accurate from the games. That’s the thing about this film, all of the characters act pretty on point and for those that are crying about Peach being more active in the story has never played a Mario game before or one of the many spin-offs. It’s absurd how many people are revealing themselves by this one complaint. The only one who gets a bit more edge is Toad, but who wouldn’t want a Toad whose first line is so intense? He brings some of the best laughs of the film, and Keegan Michael Key does a great job as the character.
Since we just mentioned one of the cast members, let’s talk about that next. Chris Pratt as Mario is actually not that bad. Sure, I wish he had a little more of that Mario energy in him, but he does a perfectly fine job as the lead. I still wish Charles Martinet was the lead character and not just some secondary characters, but I think everyone was trying to hype up how bad it was when the trailers weren’t doing a good job with how good or bad his performance was going to be. Of course, there are a lot of reasons outside of his acting to hate Chris Pratt, but in terms of his performance, he does okay. Charlie Day is a lot of fun as Luigi and captures his more earnest and innocent personality. Anya Taylor-Joy is also okay as Peach. She does as good as the princess as you could expect. Now, speaking of recognizable voices, Seth Rogen as Donkey Kong is typical Rogen. While he does try to do more as the character and his voice as possible, he’s still going to be Seth Rogen, but he does keep a lot of his Seth Rogenisms outside of his laugh on the down low, which once again, helps to make this film feel more timeless than most video game adaptations. Still, Rogen captures what Donkey Kong would be as this cocky show-off compared to the more humble Mario. The only actor I felt was miscast was Fred Armisen as Cranky Kong. He could have been a touch sassier and more snarky instead of a sort of whiny grandpa. But all things considered, Jack Black, out of all of the celebrities, does the best job, because if you were going to cast Bowser, it had to be Jack Black. He puts it all into this performance with the best balance of comedic and threatening since Bowser can be both and also be a touch pathetic. Luckily, this film has a lot more voice actors playing side or minor roles than just getting a bunch of celebrity cameos to play all of them, but you will hear famed voice actors like Cree Summers, Kevin Michael Richardson, Eric Bauza, Khary Payton, Scott Menville, John DiMaggio, Jessica DiCicco, Rino Romano, Ashley Burch, and Phil LaMarr to name a few. It’s a pretty good cast in general, and probably one of the better casts for an Illumination Entertainment film. Brian Tyler does a great job at remixing the music from the franchise and it all sounds great. You can hear a multitude of different tracks from all over the franchise. As I said above, the only part that is distracting is when the film shoves in an 80s song, and while they are good ones, they are also the ones we have seen in almost every film ever made animated or live-action.
As for the animation, for a collaboration between Nintendo and Illumination, the visuals and animation are perfect. You can tell the collaboration was a real commitment, because the characters move as they would in the games, and it just looks so good. Considering this is Illumination’s most expensive animated film to date at $100 mil, then it should look amazing. You can tell the resources went into the right spots for the animation and visuals. I don’t really agree with how this looks or feels like a typical Illumination film when all of the humans look like they were right out of a Mario game. It has some cartoony squash and stretches as well, which gives it a more bouncy feel that Illumination and Nintendo are really good at. Mario has a specific look and it needs to pretty much stay to said look. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be Mario. The worlds they crafted look jaw-dropping and grand in scale with some real ambiance and atmosphere that are in each location. They look like they were once again right out of the video games. Even the world of the Kongs looks like they were pulled out of the Donkey Kong Country games. Nothing feels out of place. Even the human world looks as if Nintendo and the Mario team were asked to craft their version of Brooklyn. You also stay in the Mushroom Kingdom and that world for a lot of the movie, which is nice since the Sonic films were so afraid to do that for some reason. Plus, it keeps with the fact that Mario is basically an isekai anime due to Mario and Luigi getting transported to another world. They also capture the wild and surreal feel of Rainbow Road and how horrifying it can be depending on the Mario Kart game you play.
Listen, Illumination Entertainment family films are going to be aiming for mass audiences and they are never going to try and be Pixar or Disney films, and it’s time for film snobs and filmgoers to realize that. There is a reason why, while maybe lacking in some regards in substance, and I have had my issues with them as well, their films make all of the money. Sure, I wish people went to see other animated films that had stuff that went against the US animation tradition, but many of the people that complain about Illumination films also don’t see those more “complex films”, and it’s very telling how much that happens. Who knew there were animation fans and filmgoers who didn’t actually follow what they preach. If you all wanted to go and support something, then Suzume is literally coming out soon (it’s out now) and you all should go find a screening of that film. Or we could all accept that some audiences don’t want to go to a theater to sit down for a few hours being depressed or challenged. Sometimes, you just go and see something silly like Cocaine Bear or a fun fantasy romp like Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves or some amazing spectacle like John Wick 4.
Back to the review of the film, The Super Mario Bros. Movie is an actually faithful adaptation of the games to a really impressive degree that offers everyone a fun and whimsical time at the theater. Honestly, I have some complicated feelings about it. It has some story beats that could have been fleshed out, and I wish Luigi was with Mario a lot more in the runtime, or that the film was longer than its extremely tight 90 minutes, but I found myself enjoying it a lot. I still have my issues with Illumination and that won’t change, but this is probably my favorite film from the studio, and so far is the best adaptation of a Nintendo property. It set out to be a loving adaptation of the video games and it passes with flying colors. I can see why some people may not like this film, but the beauty of animation is that it’s a medium that can be for everyone, and that means family and mass appeal audiences. Hopefully with the success of this film, the profits go into Illumination Entertainment’s new division that goes into more teen-to-adult-focused animated films, and I can’t wait to see what else they do next. I wouldn’t mind seeing them adapt the Mario franchise in another film since you can go in so many directions, and they have about 30+ years of games and spin-offs to pull from. I would say go see it, but due to how much money it’s making, you can tell everyone is going to see it. Like I said earlier, it helps that family audiences were starved of family entertainment for three months in 2023 so far. Now then, next time, we will be talking about the very intense Unicorn Wars.
Rating: Go See It!