It’s already safe to say that The Super Mario Bros. Movie is a rousing success. Despite a middling critical reception, the animated film smashed box-office records like blocks in its opening weekend and is currently earning high audience scores. That all but assures that Nintendo and Illumination’s cinematic partnership will continue, bringing more sequels and spinoffs set in the Mushroom Kingdom. This is the long-in-the-works start of Mario’s on-screen empire.
And I can’t help but feel just a little disappointed by that.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie isn’t exactly the most ambitious Mario adaptation. While its visuals and music are a highlight, faithfully recreating the feel of the games, it doesn’t quite reach the top of the proverbial flagpole. That’s largely because it’s still an Illumination film first and foremost, threading the Despicable Me studio’s signature humor to the iconic video game world. There’s over-the-top modern slapstick, bizarre pop music needle drops, and plenty of Minion-like sidekicks waiting to be turned into memes. It all makes for a fun kids movie, but is it Mario?
In trying to turn Mario into a modern crowd-pleaser, something gets lost in translation. The Super Mario Bros. Movie looks the part, but it lacks the games’ classic cartoon spirit — something that’s allowed the series to remain truly timeless since its inception. That makes for a fine piece of entertainment by 2023 standards, but it’s one of the first pieces of Mario media that feels like it has an expiration date attached to it.
Mario the sailor man
Bringing Mario to the big screen is not an enviable task. Despite his decades’ worth of adventures, the plumber isn’t too deep of a character; he’s a confident, determined do-gooder who fights bad guys and saves princesses. Everything in the Mushroom Kingdom’s universe is left similarly thin, with light narratives and character arcs that have only slightly evolved with time. It’s reasonable that Illumination would want to bring some depth to the series in order to make it work as a film, creating a traditional hero’s journey for Mario and teasing tragic backstories for characters like Princess Peach. All of those choices work to elevate Mario above Saturday morning cartoon status.
That’s perhaps the problem: Mario is a Saturday morning cartoon.
There’s an explicit truth to that as the series has always been rooted in classic animation. Donkey Kong was famously conceived as a Popeye video game, with the sailor saving Olive Oyl from Bluto. The arcade game is a clear visual callback to the 1934 Popeye short A Dream Walking, which has Olive Oyl sleepwalking through a construction site. When Nintendo couldn’t secure the rights to the IP, designer Shigeru Miyamoto was forced to create original characters to stand in for the cartoon’s cast — though he’d still draw from 1930s media for inspiration, this time using King Kong as a reference point.
While we narrowly avoided Popeye becoming the world’s most recognizable mascot, the Mario series has always held on to that DNA. His games play like classic 1930s cartoons, with an emphasis on transformative animation, grand musical cues, and colorful sound effects that give its world character. Even something as new as Super Mario Odyssey is a throwback to the advent of sound in cinema, crafting playful interactions built around clever sound/image relationships.
Take a character as simple as Dry Bones. The undead koopa is the living (or unliving, I suppose) embodiment of a timeless animation gag: When Mario jumps on one, it collapses into a pile of bones as a xylophone-like sound effect plays. It’s something straight out of 1929’s Disney cartoon The Skeleton Dance, which famously features a skeleton using another’s spine as a musical instrument. Even the way Mario talks in recent games, communicating solely through grunts and Italian-accented mumbles, still feels very much in line with Popeye. All those repeated “mamma mia’s” and “let’s a go’s” aren’t so different from the sailor man’s “why I oughta’s.”
It’s easy to label these games as simplistic, citing their thin narratives or lack of deep character, but that would be underappreciating the difficult task they pull off with finesse. Nintendo’s games are one of the last links mainstream pop culture still has to the age of silent film and early toons. A game like Kirby and the Forgotten Land plays like a Charlie Chaplin film; you don’t need to understand a word of English to appreciate the physical comedy of Kirby inhaling a giant staircase and wobbling around like a pink Tyrannosaurus Rex. There’s a universality to it that transcends language and age barriers. It’s why Nintendo still reigns supreme when it comes to creating family-friendly media that even adults love.
That’s the beating heart of the Mario series. Just because Nintendo doesn’t explain his backstory in detail through long-winded exposition doesn’t mean the game isn’t communicating anything. We see the character’s joyful attitude and determination expressed in exuberant backflips and peppy wahoos, just as Steamboat Willie told us exactly who Mickey Mouse is through a 15-second, toe-tapping dance. That’s the power of great animation, and it’s what’s made Mario such an enduring pop culture icon as others have become relics of their time.
A modern Mario
The Super Mario Bros. Movie doesn’t entirely throw that idea out the window. A great deal of care has gone into its visuals and audio, bringing those special parts of the game to life. We get a fair bit of Mario as a slapstick comedian when he’s helplessly bouncing off the sides of a pipe. The film’s best sequence happens early on when the brothers dash through a construction site modeled after Super Mario Bros.’ first level, wordlessly showing off Mario’s confidence through movement. It tells you just about everything you need to know about him in a few seconds.
That makes it all the more disappointing when the movie goes for modern animated tricks and tropes that are incongruous with that spirit. Its humor is indistinguishable from that of a Despicable Me movie, filled with hacky one-liners that feel engineered for merchandising potential (hearing Seth Rogen say “It’s on like Donkey Kong!” had me cringing in my seat). Random pop song choices like Holding Out for a Hero and Take On Me weaken any “it’s a kid’s movie!” defenses by throwing a bone to bored parents — despite the fact that plenty of adults revere Mario’s original music. The universal tone of the game slips away as Illumination goes for a more alienating “something for the kids, something for mom and dad” approach. It all seems a little misguided when you consider the broad range of ages that adore Mario games that rarely pander to any specific audience.
The games’ elegant cartoon character work gets lost in the monoculture soup too. A wordier, quippier script and an A-list voice cast try to bring more depth to each character, but it never quite one-ups its more subtle source material. Charlie Day is perfectly cast as Luigi, giving him a suitably manic edge, but the character never feels as expressive as he does in Luigi’s Mansion 3, where he’s a regular Lou Costello. Chris Pratt’s take on Mario is way more agreeable than fans feared it would be, but there’s a flatness to it. He’s just your average reluctant hero here.
Watching it all play out, I couldn’t help but think of one of my favorite animated films: Wall-E. The Pixar movie features two lead characters who can only speak their own names, which forced the filmmakers to get creative about how they told the robots’ love story. The result still stands as an animation master class, showing how much emotion can be expressed through physicality and vocal intonation. I respect Illumination’s decision to put its own stamp on Mario, finding a way to plumb its depths for something deeper, but I was left longing for a Mario movie that carried the same confidence as Wall-E.
There’s a moment early in The Super Mario Bros. Movie that’s been sitting with me wrong ever since I saw it. Our first introduction to Mario and Luigi is in a TV ad for their plumbing business where they speak as they do in the game. That’s immediately followed up with an ironic joke about how dumb the Italian mumbling sounds, not unlike characters in a Marvel movie quipping about how stupid a name like Ant-Man is. It’s a surprisingly rude moment that falls flat, demeaning the work of longtime Mario voice actor Charles Martinet (who cameos in the scene).
It’s a little ironic considering that Pratt’s version of Mario has become the butt of a joke in real life. Rather than poking fun at Mario’s video game voice, maybe it’s worth asking why Martinet’s exaggerated “mama mias” remain an iconic staple of pop culture.
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