The road to Illumination's The Super Mario Bros. Movie has been a long and winding one. Originally announced in 2018 before the reveal of the much-discussed voice cast in 2021, we have long been unsure as to whether Mario's big-screen debut (ahem, of the animated kind) was going to do the venerable gaming icon justice. Well, we now have our answer and it is just as we expected: The Mario Movie is a sufficiently fun time so long as you're not all that fussed about story.
So what exactly is the story? Mario (Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day) are going about setting up a plumbing business in Brooklyn, New York, but the going is tough. Their clients are few and far between and their parents are disappointed, but hey, at least they have each other, right? You'll want to remember that bit, it's important.
Through a turn of events that we won't dive too deep into here in case we should slide down the wrong pipe and land face-first in a steaming pile of spoilers, the brothers are pulled into a mysterious world and immediately separated (see? We told you it was important). Mario lands a kingdom of the mushroom-y variety, populated by adorable Toads (a particularly squeaky Keegan-Michael Key) and overseen by the generally adored Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy). Luigi finds himself in a land of lava streams and genuinely creepy Shy Guys, ruled by the scaled fist of the King of the Koopas himself, Bowser (Jack Black).
What follows is rather typical of a Mario game: Bowser is after Peach, Mario is after Bowser, Luigi gets sidelined — it's nothing that we haven't seen before. Perhaps it's the case that this should not be a criticism of the film itself. The games aren't all that big on story, so why should we expect more from a big-screen adaptation?
Unfortunately, games and films are not too similar beasts, and with an action-filled yet satisfying narrative seemingly being held in another castle, The Super Mario Bros. Movie is forced to rely on its other features to keep you entertained. These other elements do a decent job of keeping your eyes busy throughout the brisk 92-minute runtime, but the spectacle doesn't quite make up for the lack of real substance at its core.
Still, that spectacle is quite something. Starting with the obvious, this film is a dream for anyone who has ever wanted to see the world of Mario brought to life with higher fidelity. Directors Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic have ensured that the Mushroom Kingdom is absolutely jam-packed full of references to just about every Mario game available, and Illumination's signature squishy animation does a good job of presenting all of this in a colourful, pleasing way. When one confused Toad asks, "What are we supposed to do? We're adorable!", you can't help but agree.
Each location is a further feast for the eyes, as the animation house has clearly taken the time to work out the intricacies of 'the Mario style' and brilliantly realise it onscreen.
Mario aficionados will be picking up nods and cameos left, right and centre, from the obvious callbacks to Mario's signature run or side-scrolling action style, down to the more obscure Nintendo references (Pikmin fans, keep your eyes peeled). But this isn't to say that these will be a distraction for you if you have never picked up a Mario game in your life. The Mario movie is safe, sometimes to its detriment, but this means that you are never going to be left scratching your head just because you don't know the intricacies of Nintendo's history.
This clear love for the source material carries through into Brian Tyler's superb score — undoubtedly the star of the show (which is saying something when you consider the fact that there is a literal star in this one). Taking on Koji Kondo's original and iconic themes at every given opportunity, Tyler's score is rich with the history of the franchise. Many of us had heard the grand orchestral arrangement of the main theme in the first trailer, but the true gems lie in how Tyler manipulates short motifs into the score at any given moment from instantly-recognisable item sounds to snippets of the Luigi's Mansion theme.
Of course, serving up opportunities to deploy Nintendo's most famous earworms is the film's huge (perhaps too huge) cast of characters. Rounding out the main team that we mentioned above, Seth Rogan's Donkey Kong lends an enemy-turned-friend trope to the film, while nothing could have prepared us for quite how much screen time Fred Armisen's Cranky Kong would receive. All of the voice cast is, for the most part, perfectly fine. Black certainly relishes the role more than most and we were pleased to find that Pratt's vocal talents do not necessarily make or break the film after swiftly palming off the Martinet legacy voice in the opening minutes.
With a cast of main characters this large, and multiple shoutouts (musical or otherwise) hitting you square on every minute, The Super Mario Bros. Movie does suffer from some pacing issues. Squeezing everything possible into a swift hour and a half, while refreshing, means that more nourishing principles like setup and payoff take a backseat to breakneck speed. Matthew Fogel's script is full to the brim with quips and funny asides, but the level of hand-holding does grow tiresome as the film enters the final act and we still find characters explaining to us what is happening on screen instead of trusting us to work it out.
The opening act is undoubtedly the best, taking its time to introduce us to our heroes before plunging them into peril; but as time ticks on and more and more pieces are added to the puzzle, the action becomes a cycle of 'the characters find themselves in a tricky situation, they immediately get out of it'. We imagine that future sequels (which seem near-certain) will be given the chance to sit with their characters for a little, thus removing the need to sideline some for the benefit of others.
None of this is to say that The Super Mario Movie necessarily bites off more than it can chew, more that it is struggling to spit out any cohesive sentences through its mouthfuls of Nintendo history and decades' worth of Mario in-jokes.
With more references than we needed and less plot than we deserved, The Super Mario Bros. Movie is perhaps everything that you would expect it to be. Directors Horvath and Jelenic have managed to bring the Mushroom Kingdom to life in ways 8-bit Super Mario veterans never could have imagined, even if the vision does get a little overstuffed in the process. That being said, the cast of familiar faces, Tyler's clued-in score, and the sheer amount happening in every frame were enough to keep us engaged from start to finish and we are curious to see what lap two inevitably brings.
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