A fun (albeit safe), romp through the Mushroom Kingdom
The story of Super Mario as we know it began in the mid 80’s with the release of Super Mario Bros. for the NES – a humble arcade platformer developed by Nintendo that featured the titular character, Mario, running and jumping his way through a variety of levels all in pursuit of saving Princess Toadstool, aka Peach.
Unbeknownst to Nintendo at the time, Mario would soon become the face and brand of the company as a whole, soaring in popularity through the 90’s to eventually becoming the household name that he is today. For nearly 4 decades, we’ve seen countless Mario games, tons of tie-in merchandise, and even more recently a whole theme park! However, in all that time, there has only been one concerted effort by Nintendo to create a feature film based on the little red plumber… and it failed miserably! Sure, it’s achieved a ‘cult classic’ status among some fans, but that is far removed from the expectations Nintendo likely had for it.
The original Super Mario Bros. film released in 1993, after which fans received nothing but radio silence as far as Nintendo-based film adaptations were concerned. That is, until 2018, when it was revealed to the world that not only would Nintendo be making a grand return to the big screen, but they wouldn’t be doing it alone. They would also be working with Illumination to produce an animated Mario movie. Naturally, many fans had their concerns.
I’ve been a fan of Super Mario my whole life, with 1996’s Super Mario 64 being the first video game I ever owned, as well as THE game to introduce me to the medium as a whole. Now, all these years later, I consider the Super Mario brand to be a major part of who I am today. So, when the news of a new film came through, I was cautiously optimistic – especially when considering how Nintendo’s first outing went.
Thankfully, now that the film is out in full, I can confidently state that 2023’s The Super Mario Bros. Movie is a fantastic adaptation of one of gaming’s most iconic characters. That’s not to say the film is without its flaws, but for fans like myself who have effectively been waiting for this moment all their lives… it’s good to report that it lives up to the hype.
The setup for this movie is pretty straightforward: Mario & Luigi get sucked into a warp pipe while on a normal plumbing job, thus becoming entangled in a conflict between Bowser’s army and the Mushroom Kingdom, with Bowser aiming to use the Power Star to kidnap and marry Princess Peach. For fans of the games, it’s pretty familiar and feels a bit “safe” as far as Mario narratives go. However, the real problem with this movie’s story is that it moves along a bit too fast. There were multiple plot points and settings in the film that I felt just came and went without a chance to breathe, thus not allowing the audience nor the characters to really sink their teeth into any given scene. It’s something I kind of expected going in, with the runtime being a meager 92 minutes. Thankfully, the pacing issues don’t take anything away from the film, I just left the theater wanting more BECAUSE what’s already there is so good.
Ho-humness of the story aside, the real spectacle of this movie comes from the characters and the worlds they find themselves in. There are so many small details in the expansive environments and range of character performances that makes every scene feel like special attention was given to every scene. You can really tell that the folks working on this project were huge fans of Mario because nearly every frame feels distinctly, well, Mario. It’s difficult to put into words without getting into spoiler territory, though some examples that come to mind stem from the trailers leading up to the movie’s release.
The first being this scene featuring Mario & Luigi running through the streets of Brooklyn, and all of a sudden this lineup of construction platforms becomes the exact layout of Level 1-1 from the original Super Mario Bros!
I also wanted to give special shoutouts to Donkey Kong’s trailer for showing this amazing crowd of kongs cheering him on, and riiight in one of the corners here allowing us to see some of his past co-stars from the games, including Chunky Kong, Dixie Kong, and Diddy Kong!
Speaking of characters, one of the biggest points of discourse leading up to this film’s release was the voice cast – and naturally so, since Chris Pratt as Mario was certainly not going to be anyone’s first pick, much less Jack Black as Bowser. At the time when the cast list was revealed, I was personally willing to give everyone their fair shot and had faith that Nintendo knew what they were doing with this project and after seeing it… I’m glad I did. Nearly every single member of the cast delivers a performance that perfectly plays to their strengths while also working in service of the character.
I loved Anya Taylor-Joy’s portrayal of Princess Peach. She feels more independent here than in your typical Mario game, free from her usual role of captive and depicted as more of a level-headed mentor figure to her loyal Toads – and even Mario himself to some extent! Speaking of the red plumber, I went into this film expecting not to like Chris Pratt’s performance as Mario, and I’m kind of glad I did as I feel that if I had walked in with any expectations higher than that I would’ve been disappointed.
Chris’ Mario is okay, but his performance doesn’t feel particularly unique or special. It’s not bad by any means, and after about 5 minutes I kinda forgot who was voicing him. Honestly, at the end of the day, I’m just glad it wasn’t as offensive as I thought it would be. Charlie Day’s Luigi, on the other hand, is great! I feel that Charlie’s performance, unlike Chris’ Mario, brings a certain energy to the role that just feels right for Luigi. He’s the lovable scaredy cat we’ve all come to adore over the years, and I feel like that plays well to a lot of Charlie’s strengths as an actor too. It just feels right.
Of course, there is an entire cast list I could go on and on about, and if I were to give my thoughts on every single performance this review would be too long to read, so I’ll tie up this section with a character that deserves extra special recognition: Jack Black as Bowser.
If there were ever to be a perfect marriage between actor and character for a video game adaptation like this, it would be Jack Black playing Bowser. Unlike Mario, I had really high hopes for Jack’s performance as Bowser – and much to my own surprise, Jack Black delivered beyond my expectations. It’s really one of those things you’ve got to see to believe, as I’m sure my words don’t do it justice, but Jack Black really does bring a whole new element to this character, oftentimes stealing every scene that he’s in – ESPECIALLY with that musical number! There’s a certain level of authenticity that bleeds through to the character because you can tell that Jack Black LOVES being Bowser, and I believe that is something that audiences will definitely pick up on.
To keep the music track going, this film’s score rocks. So many iconic melodies and themes from Mario’s past resurface throughout the film and it is all a joy to listen to via the new, soaring orchestral performances they’ve been given here. But it’s really no surprise, as the film’s composer, Brian Tyler, worked in collaboration with Nintendo’s longtime Mario composer, Koji Kondo, to bring this film’s score to life. Each original track is truly fantastic, and once more you can feel the love for the source material, but these tracks are occasionally overshadowed by some very non-Nintendo musical cues. You see, being that this is an Illumination film, some fans were concerned that we would see some of the animation studios’ influence in this movie – specifically their penchant for using licensed tracks (see Despicable Me’s use of “You Should Be Dancing”). And, for better or worse, that’s precisely what ended up happening.
Much like the music itself, a lot of this is going to come down to opinion on whether or not you think they work for the scene. I’m personally of the mind that some do and some don’t, though I would have much rather removed ALL of them in favor of using actual Mario music instead, as it would feel more authentic to the world and allow for just that little extra bit of world building.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie, in many ways, feels like a studio testing the waters. There are some things that work better than others, but for a first foray back into the movie sphere – and for fans of Mario both new and old – this film is fantastic! As I mentioned earlier, you can really tell that everyone who worked on this film loves Super Mario. From the visual designs, the music, and especially all of the numerous retro callbacks, it all adds up to a film experience that I cannot recommend enough.
This a really good review, and I think I fully agree with it. I enjoyed the movie quite a bit, and didn't have much trouble overlooking its meager flaws.
My gripes were mostly over pacing issues. I also wish Peach's and Bowser's personalities matched the games a little bit better. I expected a more ruthless Bowser than the one we got, with fewer personal issues. And I kind of wish they reeled back on Peach a bit... they made her so awesome and flawless that she has nowhere to grow as a character. But I also realize why they made her the way she is, and the axe looming over their head if they didn't.
I think generally, if you are fimiliar with Mario enough and you like him, you're probably going to love the movie. I've only heard poor reviews from people who aren't Mario fans.
This movie deserves recognition for one specific thing: I've never seen a Hollywood video game movie trust the source material the way this one does. When I think back on prior movies like the original Mario movie, Resident Evil, Street Fighter, and even the new Sonic movies, one big commonality is they all assume the video game won't make a good movie, and set about to "adapt it" so that it can. This new Mario movie didn't do that. It implicitly trusted the source and gave us a genuine Mario experience. And it makes me happy to see it succeed, because maybe this kind of movie will happen more in the future.