The problem with most movie adaptations of popular video games is that it’s almost impossible to recreate the look and feel of the game on the big screen, a feat made even more difficult by the fact that the vast majority of them have been live-action films. 1993’s Super Mario Bros is a classic example of a poor adaptation, and since it was the first one ever, it’s long been held up as what not to do.
Thirty years later, the animated The Super Mario Bros. Movie hopes to leave a better taste in fans’ mouths. It certainly checks a lot of the necessary boxes, telling the classic Mario story of two plumbers, Mario (Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day), getting pulled in to rescue Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy) from the clutches of Bowser (Jack Black).
Only, in the film, Mario and Luigi are plumbers in New York City, and the world of Princess Peach and Bowser exists as an underworld into which the brothers accidentally enter through a large green pipe. From there, anyone who’s ever played a Mario Bros. game can tell you what happens as Mario and Luigi use their unique skills to try to save the day. Along the way, they’re helped by Toad (Keegan-Michael Key), Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen), and a host of other characters fans know and love.
The movie, directed by Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic and written by Matthew Fogel, is caught in a quandary. The quest of Mario has been ingrained in pop culture for almost 40 years, so trying to tell any other story than the one they do would be a fool’s errand. But at the same time, doing so leaves very little wiggle room for creativity and cleverness.
They do try to mix things up by showing Mario and Luigi’s family in the “real” world, although they exist merely as caricatures in relatively brief scenes designed for quick laughs. Elements like having Luigi’s ringtone be the start-up music from the Nintendo GameCube, or Luigi being separated in a very Luigi’s Mansion-like area will undoubtedly please fans, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that all of that is merely window dressing on a pretty bland story.
There is a lot of energy to the film, and it’s not difficult to understand why since they’re essentially taking the gameplay of the video game series and putting it up on the big screen. That will likely be enough for a lot of people, especially the Twitch generation, but for movie lovers, the whole endeavor comes off as one that lacks true imagination.
Pratt is perfectly fine as the voice of Mario, with the film offering a funny explanation as to why he doesn’t have an Italian accent. The distinctive voices of Black, Day, Rogen, and more fit their characters well, although Taylor-Joy’s voice seems generic. The few standouts are those voicing minor characters who understand their assignment and hit the tone just right.
It would be disingenuous to call The Super Mario Bros. Movie bad, but the spirit of adventure that it should have is diminished by its filmmakers not going outside of the prescribed box more often. There are few surprises to be found, a disappointing outcome for a promising movie.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie is now playing in theaters.