This year started off rocky for me, movie-wise, but I’ve suddenly been inundated with a series of pleasant surprises. The Super Mario Bros. Movie is the latest one, something I’d figured would be well-made and good for what it is, but not of interest to me. As far as video games go, I’ve left Mario behind; I played a few on the NES as a kid and some on the Nintendo 64, but I’m not much for platformers anymore. So I’m surprised to have walked out of the theater this happy. The Super Mario Bros. Movie is a loving ode to its video game forbears, a beautifully animated film, and, most importantly and infectiously, a lot of fun.
As Bowser, King of the Koopas, prepares to conquer the Mushroom Kingdom and the rest of the universe, brothers Mario and Luigi – a pair of plumbers from Brooklyn – get sucked into a sewer pipe and find themselves in the mystical realm of turtles and toadstools. While Luigi becomes Bowser’s prisoner, Mario finds himself in the Mushroom Kingdom, determined to save his brother and stop the Koopas and their war.
The trailers sold the animation, and the finished product delivers on that promise. The Super Mario Bros. Movie looks gorgeous, with the attention to detail so exacting as to seem otherworldly. The fibers on clothes, the hair on gorillas, the scales on the Koopas, and even the intricate brick construction are all stupendous. The faces of the various characters are expressive, in particular the eye movements, even from the ocularly simplistic toadstools. Each new character or world is a marvel, and you never get so used to the visuals that they stop amazing you. That goes for the action and movements as well, which are fluid and fast (outside of some slow motion), but always clear and easy to follow. There’s no need to worry about overpraising it; this is some of the best animation I’ve ever seen, especially computer animation.
That animation services some fun characters. None of them are particularly deep; they have basic wants and goals, but nothing that makes them all that well-rounded. But they do pop, each with distinctive traits that make them more than just a series of spacefillers. Mario is the lead, of course, and he’s a breath of fresh air because the movie takes him seriously. He’s funny, and he messes up a lot, but he isn’t a buffoon, and he doesn’t exist for supporting characters to mock and use to prop themselves up. He’s a good man who wants to protect his brother, and when he comes across people who need his help, he helps them. He’s a worthy hero, and the fish out of water stuff is more to help him grow than to laugh at him.
In fact, nobody in The Super Mario Bros. Movie is stupid, and I love that about it. Luigi is timid, more a victim of circumstance than an idiot, and the love between the brothers is the heart of the movie. Peach is skilled, smart, and a good leader, but she’s also kind and protective of her people. She feels like someone who’s prepared for a nightmare like this her whole life instead of some hokey girlboss cliché. Toad is the film’s secret weapon, consistently funny but earnest and brave at the same time. Donkey Kong is fine; he’s entertaining in the action scenes, but he doesn’t have much characterization beyond seeking his father’s approval. Speaking of whom, Cranky Kong is funnier and more interesting than Donkey Kong, aloof until honor demands he not be.
The one exception – partly – is Bowser. For about half of his screen time, he’s a good villain; he’s intimidating, he feels like a genuine threat, and he’s intelligent in his actions. Everything he does in terms of conquering the various kingdoms makes sense, and you buy into the danger he poses to the good guys. The problem is, they give him this dopey subplot that’s supposed to make him human (I guess) and be funny, but it falls flat. It’s too broad, too silly, and it makes an otherwise imposing and competent villain seem dopey. If they had just stuck to the serious stuff, kept Bowser scary, and left the comedy to the heroes, he would’ve been perfect.
What helps him, along with most of the characters, is the voice work. The actors in The Super Mario Bros. Movie are almost all good, but Jack Black is the best of them. He’s creepy and appropriately villainous as Bowser, and you immediately feel how evil he is. Another great one is Keegan-Michael Key, who is as unrecognizable as Toad as Jack Black is as Bowser. It’s a heightened voice, but it works perfectly, and Key is versatile enough to be funny and stoic, depending on the scene. Anya Taylor-Joy gives Princess Peach the right combination of can-do gumption and sincere affection. Seth Rogen, on the other hand, is just using his own voice, which he admitted to in an ill-advised interview. It’s fine; he sounds kind of like Donkey Kong might sound, but his voice is so recognizable (“Heh-heh-heh!”) that it takes you out of the movie a bit.
The Mario Bros. themselves fall somewhere in between. Chris Pratt’s Mario voice is a lot better than I thought it would be; he doesn’t have a heavy Italian accent like Mario does in the later games, but the reasoning behind it makes sense. He does affect a particular voice, though, instead of just sounding like he normally sounds. There are traces of an American Italian affectation, but it’s not a full-on accent. Charlie Day does this slightly, but not as well as Pratt does. Luigi sounds like Charlie Day, although less exaggerated than he does in anything in which I’ve seen him. It works for Luigi as he’s portrayed in the movie, and Day fits his perpetual nervousness well, but it isn’t as nuanced or interesting as Pratt’s performance.
But the real joy in The Super Mario Bros. Movie is found in the references to the games. That sounds bad; we’ve been deluged with entertainment that’s nothing but ‘member berries of late – it’s Star Wars’ raison d’etre at this point. But The Super Mario Bros. Movie incorporates its references into the plot, making most of them matter. For example (and I’ll use things that were in the trailers to avoid spoilers), the bricks, fireball swings, and other elements of the Mario games are there to train Mario in traversing this new world, and the question mark blocks assist him in fighting the bad guys. The Mario Kart sequence and the Donkey Kong fight are important plot points. But some of them are just for fun, and they bring a smile every time; I caught plenty of them, and I’m sure there are tons more that I missed because I haven’t played many of the later games. There’s an obscure one in the beginning that made me smile more than anything in the movie (hint: it’s not from a game).
The score follows suit, made up of music from the various Mario video games. Every part of it feels completely natural, and it brings you into the world of the games, which is the world of the movie. I also loved the song choices; they lean towards classics instead of some lousy modern trash the studio wants to push for cash. And each song fits the scene in which it’s used, as opposed to being there to trigger the audience’s nostalgia button.
All of this props up a fairly basic plot. It isn’t bad, and everything flows well from scene to scene; it’s just nothing special. But that works in the film’s favor; you don’t need a labyrinthine tale of twists, double-crosses, and shifting power dynamics to tell a story about a plumber fighting a turtle dragon to save some mushrooms. And that’s what makes The Super Mario Bros. Movie such a great time: it delivers a straightforward story with decent characters in a beautiful package that keeps you entertained and nostalgic for a formative game series. That’s worth a movie ticket.