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The Super Mario Bros. Movie review: a weightless adventure

Mario and Luigi raise their fists together in The Super Mario Bros. Movie.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie
“The Super Mario Bros. Movie is a visually stunning animated adventure film that, unfortunately, suffers from several notable pacing and casting issues.”
  • Visually stunning animation throughout
  • Several memorable set pieces
  • An unrelentingly fast pace
  • A weak first act
  • Uneven comedy throughout

It’s fitting, in a way, that The Super Mario Bros. Movie feels so much like a side-scrolling, 2D video game. Not only are there multiple instances throughout the 92-minute film in which directors Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic literally adopt a side-scrolling perspective, but the film also bounces from one story beat and location to another with the same sense of dimensionless expediency. Penned by Matthew Fogel, The Super Mario Bros. Movie doesn’t want to spend too much time exploring its locations or characters — no matter how beautifully they’re rendered. The film, instead, feels like it’s being operated by a competitive gamer who wants to progress through each level as quickly as they can.

That doesn’t mean The Super Mario Bros. Movie is without its pleasures. Animated by the artists at Illumination (the studio responsible for Despicable Me and Minions), The Super Mario Bros. Movie is a visually sumptuous film from beginning to end. Every frame feels carefully and lovingly polished (Rainbow Road has, perhaps, never looked better). The film’s script, direction, and voice performances, unfortunately, fail to evoke the same level of care and commitment. The resulting film is, like all the most disappointing video games, technically impressive but flavorless and dramatically unengaging.

Mario, Peach, and Toad stand above the clouds together in The Super Mario Bros. Movie.
Universal Pictures

The Super Mario Bros. Movie wisely introduces its villain, the nefarious Bowser (Jack Black), before its heroes. The film’s opening scene follows Bowser just as he and his army of evil turtles launch an all-out assault on a kingdom of peaceful penguins in order to capture their coveted Super Star. Bowser’s attack rides the line between epic danger and comedy well, but his acquisition of the penguins’ Super Star plays out, like much of The Super Mario Bros. Movie, far too quickly to make much of an impact.

From there, the film cuts to — of all places — Brooklyn, New York, where a pair of Italian brothers, Mario (Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day), are in the midst of trying to launch their new, family-run plumbing company. Despite their clear passion, however, both Mario and Luigi meet resistance and mockery from some of their closest family members and their former employer, Spike (Sebastian Maniscalco). Desperate to prove himself, Mario leads Luigi one night on a mission to fix a broken Brooklyn water main. After a series of unexpected events leads them into a hidden chamber in the New York City tunnel system, though, Mario and Luigi find themselves sucked into a magical green pipe that leads to other worlds.

Along the way, Mario and Luigi get separated from each other. The latter ends up a prisoner of Black’s Bowser in the “Dark Lands,” while Pratt’s Mario finds himself stranded in the Mushroom Kingdom, which is ruled by the formidable Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy). Upon learning about Luigi’s situation, Peach lets Mario and his companion, Toad (Keegan-Michael Key), join her on her journey to convince the Mushroom Kingdom’s neighboring Kong army to join them in their crusade to defeat Bowser once and for all. Little does Peach know that Bowser not only wants to conquer the multiverse but also turn Peach into his bride.

Universal Pictures

Peach, Mario, and Toad’s adventure features a fair number of memorable moments, but The Super Mario Bros. Movie’s lean 92-minute runtime forces it to speed through all of its plot beats at such a breakneck pace that many of them are rendered weightless. That aspect of the film is made worse by its decision to spend a large portion of its first act exploring Mario and Luigi’s unexciting lives in Brooklyn. On paper, that might not seem like a terrible idea, but Mario and Luigi’s origin story ultimately doesn’t add much to The Super Mario Bros. Movie. As a matter of fact, it delays the film from getting to its more exciting fantasy worlds and set pieces and, consequently, forces The Super Mario Bros. Movie to compensate for its New York detour by only speeding even faster through its second and third acts.

The film’s performances are, much like its story, a bit of a mixed bag. While Chris Pratt’s voice isn’t nearly as irritating as some of The Super Mario Bros. Movie’s trailers may have suggested, he still feels miscast throughout the film as Mario. The same goes for Seth Rogen as Donkey Kong and Fred Armisen as Cranky Kong, the crotchety father of Rogen’s himbo gorilla. Rogen brings little to his performance except his usual on-screen persona — rendering Donkey Kong as just yet another one of his stoner characters. Armisen, on the other hand, takes a big vocal swing as Cranky Kong that doesn’t totally connect, which results in a vocal performance that isn’t funny as much as it is purely grating.

Some of the film’s other cast members fare better. Anya Taylor-Joy makes Princess Peach a likable warrior by turning in a fairly committed, if low-key, performance. Charlie Day, conversely, gives a performance as Luigi that rides the line between cartoonish and human well, while Juliet Jelenic steals several scenes as the joyfully nihilistic Lumalee. No one, however, makes quite as lasting of an impression as Black, who brings his usual, over-the-top energy to Bowser, an insecure warlord who can suddenly bust out a pathetic power ballad about his undying love for Peach as easily as he can blast a deadly ray of fire from his mouth.

Donkey Kong drives behind Mario in The Super Mario Bros. Movie.
Universal Pictures

As rushed as it is, The Super Mario Bros. Movie does make space for several visually stunning and genuinely thrilling action sequences. A Super Smash Bros.-esque arena fight between Pratt’s Mario and Rogen’s Donkey Kong lands particularly well, though, no sequence in the film is quite as gorgeous or engaging as the Mario Kart-inspired race down Rainbow Road that caps off its second act. As much as it is an instance of blatant nostalgia bait, the set piece is so visually engaging and propulsively paced that it’s impossible not to wish that the rest of The Super Mario Bros. Movie had felt as cohesive, fun, and gripping.

There is clearly a lot of love for its source material on display throughout The Super Mario Bros. Movie. The film makes more than a few efforts to pay homage to all the corners of the Mario Bros. video game franchise, but not all of them work as well as others, and even the film’s best scenes are hampered by its frustratingly breathless pace and sporadically effective comedic moments. As is the case with its selection of ‘80s needle drops, which include now overly used tracks like “Holding Out for a Hero” and “Take On Me,” the film is an aesthetically pleasing but unimaginative romp.

The Super Mario Bros. Movie is now playing in theaters. Be sure to read The Super Mario Bros. Movie’s ending, explained if you want to be spoiled.

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Alex Welch
Alex Welch is a TV and movies writer based out of Los Angeles. In addition to Digital Trends, his work has been published by…
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