April 21, 2023 | ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT | By Sophia Lisco
2023 seems to mark a renaissance of screen adaptations of iconic games. We’ve already seen “Sonic” slotted for a third movie adaptation, and the cast of “Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” has turned some heads. HBO’s “The Last of Us” proved that, when done correctly, video games can make for very good television drama. This month, however, “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” is stirring up the most buzz.
Directors Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic borrow voices from a ridiculously talented cast of Hollywood superstars to breathe life into the classic characters. Chris Pratt’s Mario and Charlie Day’s Luigi abandon the Italian accents Nintendo fans are familiar with, allowing their voice acting to take a backseat amidst the pushback the film received for the questionable castings.
At the film’s opening, the two brothers are starting a small plumbing business in Brooklyn. When the city’s water mains start to flood, Mario and Luigi seize the opportunity to save their city and get some new customers. Descending into the sewers of the city, they are sucked into a mysterious pipe, transporting them into a whole new world. Mario is sent to the plush Mushroom Kingdom and gets separated from Luigi, who is sent to the dark lands ruled by the evil Bowser (Jack Black). And so, their adventure begins.
Mario meets Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy), and the two embark on a hero’s quest to save Luigi and the Mushroom Kingdom. Along the way, they enlist the help of Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen) and his army, racing together along Rainbow Road to save the day. The journey will feel very familiar to fans of the Super Mario games, as the film takes great measures to remain true to its source material.
Throughout the film, the characters access power-ups (via question mark boxes) that are canonical to the Super Mario games. In a battle sequence between Mario and Donkey Kong, the power-ups take center stage, merging Mario items of old and new. The scores from each edition of the games are repurposed for the big screen, and keen Mario fans will pick up the musical motifs that scatter the film.
A more notable tribute is the casting of Charles Martinet, who voiced the original Mario and Luigi, as Mario’s dad – his trademarked “wahoo!” is unmistakable. The film essentially functions as a database of Mario Bros. references, which are appreciated by lovers of the classic games.
The attention to detail when building the world of Mario and Luigi is impressive, but the writing falls flat. Not even all of the call-backs, references, and easter eggs in the world can save a weak script.
Some aspects of the narrative seem to hint at originality, though they rely heavily on the source material to do the dirty work. At a point, the film seems to poke fun at Bowser’s character, laying into his “big plan” to propose to Princess Peach after destroying her home and kidnapping her friends. This has always been Bowser’s motivation, and the reactions of the other characters serve to emphasize the ridiculousness of such a plan. Though subtle, this gag adds a hint of self-awareness, something that can function successfully (see the Lego movies). Had this approach pervaded the rest of the film, the plot might have stood out and meant something more.
The Illumination x Nintendo collaboration deserves a little bit of credit for the attempt to create a strong female character. Their Princess Peach is more flushed out than she has been in other Mario-related narratives, transcending her usual “damsel in distress” role to become an active agent in saving herself and her kingdom. True to the games, her romantic connection with Mario is an element of the story, though it is sidelined by the overarching elements of action. Still, it would have been nice if “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” at least passed the Bechdel Test.
Horvath and Jelenic certainly brought the Super Mario universe to life. The soundtrack is perhaps a 50/50 mix of original Mario-inspired scoring and 1980s throwback songs that, though perhaps overused, contribute to the air of nostalgia evoked by the film. Children will certainly enjoy the fantastical elements of the Mario world, and their parents will appreciate the references and tributes that have been jam-packed into the narrative.
“The Super Mario Bros. Movie” is cute, but if you aren’t at least an amateur Mario-enjoyer, you won’t find much to Wahoo! about.
“The Super Mario Bros. Movie” is in theaters now.