Nintendo’s star Plumbers Jump into Animated Big Screen Adventure
Directed by Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic
Starring Chris Pratt, Anya-Taylor Joy, Jack Black
Released April 5th, 2023
It’s easy to make the argument that an Italian plumber named Mario is the most famous video game character of all time, although I’d place him at number two, with Sonic the Hedgehog in third place and Pac-Man in the number one slot. Making his debut as “Jump Man” out to rescue Pauline in 1981’s arcade hit Donkey Kong, the mustachioed character went on to star in Mario Bros. with his brother Luigi (a simple color palette-swap of Mario) and in 1985 the duo caused a generational splash with the debut of Super Mario Brothers on the Nintendo Entertainment System. An animated television series followed, along with merchandise, clothing, comic books, toys, countless video games, and even breakfast cereal.
Super Mario Brothers became the first video game series to be adapted into a live action feature, with a 1993 film of the same name starring Bob Hoskins as Mario, John Leguizamo as Luigi, Samantha Mathis as Princess Daisy, and Dennis Hopper as King Koopa. To say the film bore little resemblance to the game is an understatement. If the filmmakers didn’t feel the game had enough story to properly adapt it into a feature film, that’s understandable. But they created a strange, dystopian science fiction film that didn’t please sci-fi fans or fans of the video game. The audiences of the day, mostly children, were left confused by the film, which became a legendary Hollywood misfire. It became something of an industry belief that video games could not be adapted into good films. I’m not sure that idea has been completely disproven, though 2018’s Tomb Raider comes closest.
After the failure of the 1993 film, Nintendo was reluctant to let an American studio anywhere near their precious plumber again, and so it would be thirty years before we were treated to another big screen adventure in the Mushroom Kingdom. The story goes that after the powers that be at Nintendo saw Sony’s successful Sonic the Hedgehog movie in 2020, they decided to partner with Illumination, the studio behind the Minions, to bring Mario to animated life. While the Sonic movies feature scenes that recall the video games they are based on, they feature an original story. The same is the case with The Super Mario Bros. Movie.
Mario (Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day) are plumbers in the real world (our world?) and they find themselves in the Mushroom Kingdom after going down a magical pipe. The brothers are separated during their trip and Luigi is soon captured by Bowser (Jack Black), King of the Koopa, a race of turtle warriors. Mario meets Toad (Keegan-Michael Kay), who is a Toad. I don’t mean a bufonidae, I mean in this universe a Toad is the name of his species and also the name of every Toad. Imagine in our world if every cat was also named cat. Anyway, the Toads are led by a human, Princess Peach (Anya-Taylor Joy). Peach asks Mario for help in convincing the neighboring Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen) to help in defeating Bowser. Along the way the brothers will reunite, 1980’s music will be needle dropped, and karts will be raced.
The Mario video games are known as “platformers” and sure enough, we are treated to many scenes where the characters run from left to right jumping and dodging obstacles. It’s cute the first few times but wears thin. The games have some of the most recognizable music in video game history, and Brian Tyler, who composed the score for The Super Mario Bros. Movie, wisely weaves many of Koji Kondo’s music cues throughout the film.
A problem one runs into when adapting a video game is what to do with the main character. Since these characters are controlled by users, they are usually not very well developed beyond acting as an avatar for players. The film attempts to have a subplot where Mario’s father (Charles Martinet) doesn’t consider him a success (even though he owns his own business?), but this isn’t very deep. In the end, Mario’s supporting cast is far more interesting than Mario. It doesn’t help that Mario’s voice is the worst element of the film. Chris Pratt’s voice doesn’t sound right coming out of Mario’s mouth, and he doesn’t commit to an Italian accent. Legendary voice actor Charles Martinet, who created the iconic “It’s-a-me, Mario!” voice that we’re heard across media, is given a cameo in the film. Why not let him do Mario’s voice instead? Nobody is clamoring to see this film just because they hired Chris Pratt.
Charlie Day is fine as Luigi, although I miss what John Leguizamo brought to the character in the live action film. Although the film would have you believe he was cast as Donkey Kong, Seth Rogen is just playing himself. He doesn’t try to do any kind of voice work for Donkey Kong, instead giving us his trademark Seth Rogen laugh. Fred Armisen is doing a specific voice for Cranky Kong, but it’s highly annoying. I disliked Cranky and Donkey and couldn’t wait to move on from Donkey Kong Country. Jack Black’s Bowser is one of the stronger performances in the film, with Black able to bring his musical talent to the role. Anya-Taylor Joy brings a fierceness to Princess Peach (originally known as “Princess Toadstool”), who is updated to be a strong leader and capable warrior.
Kevin Michael Richardson plays the turtle wizard Kamek and Sebastian Maniscalco is Spike from the video game Wrecking Crew, a nice reference for old school video game fans. There are more references and easter eggs for gamers squeezed into this movie than I could have imagined. I don’t want to give them away here but be on the look out for nods to Punch-Out!!, F-Zero, and many more iconic Nintendo games. Some may feel the kart racing scene is shoe-horned in, but as a fan of blue shells and rainbow road, I’m cool with its inclusion. One of my favorite characters in the Super Mario universe is the undead turtle Dry Bones, and he gets the best sequence in the movie, terrorizing an already scared Luigi. Many characters are only hinted at, including in the two post-credit scenes that set up fun sequel ideas and adventures to come. The Mario video games are made for kids and so is The Super Mario Bros. Movie. It’s a solid family film that has an absolutely breakneck pace that never lets up.