Making good video game movies shouldn’t be hard. For decades, this particular subgenre had delivered embarrassingly bad adaptations, as Hollywood struggled to figure out how to bring the fun and engagement of video games to the big screen. While there have been positive steps in recent years, most notably with Sonic the Hedgehog, it’s Nintendo’s The Super Mario Bros. Movie that faithfully brings the video game to life as it was meant to be seen, in pure animated glory by the brilliant folks at Illumination, whose Despicable Me/Minions films already resemble the best Super Mario cut scenes. It’s a film that is so bristling with joy and honest love for Nintendo’s flagship character that it’ll make you forget all about that 1993 live-action movie. They are in entirely different mushroom kingdoms, folks.
The screenplay by Matthew Fogel is simple, as it should be, but what’ll hook you immediately is the animation. This film looks incredible; bright and lively as a video game movie should. Chris Pratt voices Mario, the courageous Italian plumber from Brooklyn who, along with his timid bro Luigi (Charlie Day), have started their own business with a cheesy superhero-style TV commercial. While Mario struggles to impress his father, he gets a chance to show the hero he can be when he and Luigi are sucked via drain pipe into another world. Mario lands in the Mushroom Kingdom, surrounded by the one food he detests most…which makes eating the mushroom power-ups kinda tricky. Luigi is separated and lands in the spooky realm of Bowser (Jack Black), where he battles Dry Bones, undead Koopa turtles who can’t die, and other creepy creatures before being captured.
Aided by a brave Toad (Keegan-Michael Key), Mario is led to the castle of Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy), who agrees to help him save Luigi and the entire Kingdom from Bowser. But first, Mario has to defeat a near-impossible obstacle course that will require impossible strength and athleticism. Basically, time to down some power-ups, which either make him grow in size, shrink to the size of an insect, or throw fireballs. Later, other recognizable power-ups will gift Mario with the skills of a cat or a flying raccoon. One of the film’s many awesome traits is how it weaves in elements of the games that fans will instantly recognize. Even the construction of each setting is often taken straight from familiar stages or levels, and this happens whether in the alternate world or back home on Earth.
Multiple scenes pack an entertaining punch, and there’s tons of action and humor in equal measure. The Super Mario Bros. Movie so beautifully captures the gaming experience in multiple ways, from the epic slugfest between Mario and Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen) that sees the two fighting while performing a balancing act; to the incredible Mario Kart racing sequence that is everything fans could hope Rainbow Road to be…mixed with a healthy dose of Mad Max: Fury Road. It definitely pays to be a longtime Mario Bros. gamer; when a Koopa shouts “Blue Shell!!” you instantly know that somebody’s Kart is about to go KABOOM.
The game is clever enough to poke fun at classic games’…uh, problematic, notions of villainy. Bowser isn’t just bent on worldwide domination; he’s got a crush on Princess Peach and his real plan is to force her to marry him. This causes even his evil minions to question whether this is a very good idea; “What if she says no?”, one asks before being burned to a crisp. Bowser’s romantic notions are hilarious, epitomized by rockin’ piano power ballad that finds Jack Black in full Tenacious D mode.
In other places, the film is so jam packed with nostalgic references that it demands multiple viewings. Look closely and you’ll see callbacks to Jumpman, Mario’s original name in Japan, as well as an appearance by Foreman Spike, the protagonist of the classic Wrecking Crew video game. You’ll also find many references to other games that featured Mario, including Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out in which Mario played the referee, and of course, Donkey Kong. Characters from all across the Mario franchise populate the film, but the best is a comically-morose, suicidal blue Luma from the Super Mario Galaxy games, who keeps harshing everyone’s buzz.
While some were skeptical of Chris Pratt’s ability to voice Mario, since he doesn’t boast the thick Italian accent, it actually works better because his “Mamma Mias!!!”, which are frequent, are so easy to understand. The voice work all around is fantastic, with Black coming through as the best of the bunch. A zippy musical score that also borrows liberally from the franchise keeps the action moving, while the brisk 90-minute runtime is also a bonus.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie is utterly perfect, and I have never wanted to go back and revisit the video games more. In fact, I’ve got Super Mario 64 loaded up right now. It’s been way too long that Nintendo has been running scared from using their characters on the big screen, but I’m glad to see that time is over. They have a wealth of popular brands that are just waiting to unite as part of a Nintendo cinematic universe. In one scene, a character is seen playing the classic game Kid Icarus, and my immediate thought was “I can’t wait until Nintendo makes a Kid Icarus movie someday!” For an entire generation of console-loving gamers, The Super Mario Bros. Movie will have them excited at the possibilities, too.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie opens in theaters on April 5th.