It’s an old, but so far reliable adage, that game adaptations just don’t work.
Every one of them just seems to tumble into the same pitfalls. The embarrassed self-mockery, as if the material was somehow beneath the filmmakers, the shameless advertising, and a disdain for anything resembling a coherent plot.
As an audience, we know we’re being sold the extended franchise with the movie. But, gosh, just let us have fun with it at the same time. That’s what the first Lego Movie did. It knew we were all thinking about how this makes us want to play with LEGOS again, but that didn’t stop it from telling a good story in the process.
It’s hard to say where The Super Mario Bros. Movie went astray this time. After all, unlike the 90s version starring Bob Hoskins, John Leguizamo, and Dennis Hopper, this family-friendly animation has the full backing of Nintendo. Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto is listed very prominently as a co-producer.
It serves as a kind of origin story, but only for those already invested in Super Mario in the first place. While we meet Mario and Luigi for the first time, it’s never clear why they’re, well, them. Weirdly enough, both the opening and final acts of the film borrow a lot from the 1993 film to the point that it honestly makes the original overall look like a better picture.
There’s a clumsy exposition dump that spends way too long setting up conflicts that never amount to anything, and the limp script even attempts to handwave away Mario’s decidedly flat voice acting with a joke signed off by the great Charles Martinet. Even the iconic outfits get an explanation they don’t need.
From there, it’s off to the Mushroom Kingdom, where Bowser wants to marry Princess Peach because he just does. Jack Black does his best in a role that’s completely wasted by the film. In the games, Bowser is a hilarious villain and sometimes anti-hero, who serves as the perfect foil and menace to Mario. Here, the duo doesn’t meet until the very end, and they barely interact.
Anya Taylor-Joy brings life and wit to the only worthwhile character in the film. In a better world, this would be a film about Princess Peach, and I think the film knows it. Otherwise, it wouldn’t spend so much time attempting to hide her after a killer introduction, which is more fun than anything Mario gets to do.
Speaking of Mario, he feels like a stranger in his own movie. The phoned-in performance by Chris Pratt doesn’t help, but it’s not entirely his fault, either. As written, Mario is an empty shell of tropes. A personality-free void designed only to point at future marketing opportunities while mouthing “mamma mia!” in the process.
With nearly 40 years of imaginative lore, characters, and quintessential music by Koji Konno to mine from, how is it that The Super Mario Bros. Movie is such a dire, lifeless affair? Probably because everything that’s fun and imaginative comes from Nintendo. The rest of it, courtesy of Illumination Studios, is a series of committee-crafted jokes and pop-culture references. The kind executives test to within an inch of their lives to maximize profits.
Why else would there be an incessant barrage of dated 80s pop songs where a soaring music cue from Konno should be? They’re not even original or witty pop songs, but rather the first picks from a Corporate FM playlist. Mario does something heroic? Let’s play “I Need a Hero.” Someone admires race karts? AC/DC it is.
In one particularly jarring moment, Donkey Kong Country becomes a gaudy sideshow as Mario and Peach pass through it as A-ha’s “Take On Me” plays. Why does A-Ha play in a Mario movie? Who knows. It doesn’t fit the scene, the place, or the material. But someone had all these royalties lying around, and they’ll be damned if they’re not going to use them.
Calling The Super Mario Bros. Movie a disaster is not inaccurate. But what’s worse is that it’s a painfully dull disaster. The kind of unimaginative slog that doesn’t even make for an interesting conversation. We know why this got made. It’s going to make a ton of money. There’s nothing to explore here.
Compare it to the 1993 Hoskins, Leguizamo, and Hopper picture, and it’s almost comical how lifeless the 2023 animation feels. That other film is a trainwreck, but it’s a fascinating and strangely brave trainwreck nonetheless. One that takes chances and tries something new with the material. Even if it doesn’t work, that kind of bravado is always better than lazy, recycled material like this.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie, on the other hand, is so cynical and dated right out of the gate that it makes something as inherently positive as Mario feel just a tad distasteful.