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Mamma Mia! The Super Mario Bros. Movie, It’s-a Not Bad!

Leaping the pitfalls of failed adaptations, The Super Mario Bros. Movie goes for the high score. Even when it falls short, it’s an engaging kids’ film sure to satisfy nostalgia seekers. Filmmakers have finally managed to adapt the video game franchise into something worth watching. That doesn’t mean the movie is perfect. However, any flaws don’t make The Super Mario Bros. Movie unwatchable. It just feels like a film that could’ve been a bit better.

The story starts with the dramatic arrival of Bowser, King of the Koopas. Following a delightfully comical engagement with the penguin-like Bumpty, he’s established as a ruthless, seemingly unstoppable foe. Audiences then meet Mario and Luigi, two brothers struggling not only to start their own plumbing business but to earn some respect from the people around them. To that end, attempting to save Brooklyn from a crisis, the Mario brothers fall into a magical pipe which not only brings them to the Mushroom Kingdom but separates the two. In order to save his brother, Mario teams up with Princess Peach and the overall adventure ensues.

A Super Marios Bros and their friends look over a peaceful vista.
Photo: Courtesy Universal Studios.

The simple plot is not only easy to follow; it allows The Super Mario Bros. Movie to move along quickly. Unfortunately, to keep up a brisk pace, at times the story relies on most of the audience already being fans of the franchise. This isn’t a film for anyone completely unfamiliar with the video games or world of Nintendo for that matter. Fortunately, things are simple enough those without encyclopedic knowledge of the franchise will be able to make logical leaps. The only downside is they may miss some inside jokes.

Easter eggs abound throughout the film, a common feature in nostalgia-driven cinema. That makes directors Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic a solid choice to lead The Super Mario Bros. Movie. Co-creators of the Teen Titans Go! television series, they also helmed the feature length film Teen Titans Go! To the Movies, which included well over 100 various comic book easter eggs and in-jokes. Part of the treat watching The Super Mario Bros. Movie is catching such moments. No desire to spoil any here: there are references alluding to every corner of Mario Bros. history as well as choice selections from the wide world of Nintendo.

Yet, the most satisfying easter eggs are the audio ones. Composer Brian Tyler worked closely with Koji Kondo, who crafted many of the beloved themes from the video game franchise. Familiar chiptunes some recognize in two notes have been transformed into grand orchestral numbers. Though they still maintain the simplicity that makes them memorable and charming, these themes now fluidly swell into epic songs. Tyler manages to breathe new life into the familiar without sacrificing what makes them special, and it’s hard not to feel an overwhelming nostalgic rush when certain songs play.

Bowser W Koopas from Super Mario Bros, Bowser, a kind of dragon turtle with horns and a shock of red hair.
Photo: courtesy Universal Studios.

If only that distracted from the film’s shortcomings. The Super Mario Bros. Movie features a quality voice cast; however, none of them really bring anything special. It’s a tricky criticism to make because no one does a poor job, but it feels like Anya Taylor-Joy as Princess Peach or Chris Pratt as Mario could be replaced without losing anything. Jack Black is doing the same shtick he’s been doing his whole career, and Charlie Day doesn’t do much except scream in panic. But perhaps such failings fall on the script more than the cast.

Often the dialogue feels pointless since it seems like characters could say anything and the plot would move forward regardless. Ad-lib talents like those of Keegan-Michael Key seem woefully unused, while overall, performers weren’t really left with much to explore. Except for Luigi, none of the characters really experience any arcs or growth. Mario and Peach are confident, capable individuals from the start. Any difficulties they encounter feel forced to create toothless tension. Some smart dialogue or clever plot points could’ve gotten around such deficiencies, but the movie is mostly set on getting to the next action extravaganza as soon as possible.

Here we go… to the next glittery spectacle or nostalgia prod! Unfortunately, that’s a pitfall inherent to much of modern animation. And in that respect, The Super Mario Bros. Movie is top notch.

The cast of Super Marios Bros. Movie on Rainbow Road.
Photo: courtesy Universal Studios.

From distinct scales on Bowser’s skin to color variations running through fire flowers, Illumination Studios Paris works wonders. Animators have crafted a world that is alive and vibrate. From the dazzling Rainbow Road to the weight of clothes, subtle and sharp details combine into amazing moments like when power-ups alter characters for action scenes. It helps that such set pieces often cleverly ground The Super Mario Bros. Movie in its own plausible magical reality. Though they sometimes happen too quick to really catch all the marvelous images on screen, The Super Mario Bros. Movie is sumptuous eye candy.

It’s been thirty years since the first Super Mario Bros. Movie sauntered onto the big screen like a bob-omb. Although the current cinematic incarnation is leaping over a low bar, it goes for a high jump. The target audience here is clearly children, and that’s not a bad thing. Kids are definitely going to be entertained. Parents, particularly gamers, will likely enjoy nostalgic moments, easter eggs, and in-jokes.

Although the cast, especially Seth Rogen, doesn’t do anything special, none of them hurt the film. Fortunately, the animation is the highest quality, while the original music is an absolutely enthralling high point. Especially for fans of the video games, The Super Mario Bros. Movie is worth seeing once.

Written by Jay Rohr

J. Rohr is a Chicago native with a taste for history and wandering the city at odd hours. In order to deal with the more corrosive aspects of everyday life he writes the blog and makes music in the band Beerfinger. His Twitter babble can be found @JackBlankHSH.

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