Movie Review ~ The Super Mario Bros. Movie

The Facts:

Synopsis: While working underground to fix a water main, Brooklyn plumbers Mario and brother Luigi are transported down a mysterious pipe and wander into a magical new world. But when the brothers are separated, Mario embarks on an epic quest to find Luigi.
Stars: Chris Pratt, Anya Taylor-Joy, Charlie Day, Jack Black, Keegan-Michael Key, Seth Rogen, Fred Armisen, Sebastian Maniscalco, Charles Martinet, Kevin Michael Richardson
Director: Aaron Horvath & Michael Jelenic
Rated: PG
Running Length: 92 minutes
TMMM Score: (3/10)
Review:  Thirty years ago, the live-action Super Mario Bros. movie was a spectacular early summer bomb at the box office. Starring the late Bob Hoskins as Mario and John Leguizamo as Luigi, the infamous dud immediately made a critical error in bringing characters that should have stayed animated to life. While directors Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel gave the Hollywood Pictures release some grandiose visuals thanks to their well-honed eye from years of making music videos, it was sort of a gonzo mess. Even though it was aimed and marketed to tykes, it didn’t look like a family-friendly film, and that’s ultimately what it needed to be. 

I haven’t revisited that movie since I saw it in a second-run theater during its original release, but even as a 13-year-old, I recognized the filmmakers had gone out on a limb to take some risks. It didn’t work out as anyone had hoped, but at least they dared to try. That’s more than I can say for the marginally creative minds responsible for the drippy (but properly animated) The Super Mario Bros. Movie. One of the least complex films you’ll likely come across, I’ve opened cereal boxes with more challenging mechanics than this lackluster effort.

Before you throw balls of flame or green tortoise shells at me, let me give you the good news. The animators at Illumination have again delivered a gorgeous-looking movie with visuals that truly make the eyes pop. It’s very much as if the best version of your favorite Mario game has sprung to life on the big screen, and even though the projection at my screening was a tiny bit dark from what I deem to be a fading bulb, I would love to see this one again in IMAX3D. Your favorite characters all show up, and composer Brian Tyler has nicely worked in many of the themes from various iterations of the games, springboarding off of Koji Kondo’s instantly recognizable jingle.

If only Minions: The Rise of Gru screenwriter Matthew Fogle had brought that same sense of tipping-of-the-hat fun to this origin-story adventure. You’d think that after thirty years, Nintendo (who took greater creative control over this film after letting anything fly the previous go-around) might have pushed for a more dynamic scenario than what Fogle laid out. 

Mario (Chris Pratt, The Tomorrow War) and Luigi (Charlie Day, I Want You Back) are Brooklyn brothers that have just started their own plumbing business after breaking off as underlings for rival laborer Spike (Sebastian Maniscalco, Tag). Putting on hammy Italian accents (‘Mamma-a-Mia!’) and wearing uniforms with their initials on their hats are just a few of the gimmicks older brother Mario wants them to try to get them noticed and drum up customers.

When a water line breaks and the brothers rush to help, they find a sealed room and a series of pipes that Luigi is quickly sucked into, followed by Mario. The brothers are separated, and while Luigi spends most of the film imprisoned in a cage, Mario lands in the Mushroom Kingdom that’s set to be attacked by Bowser (Jack Black, Bernie), King of the Koopas, who intends to marry the ruler of the kingdom, Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy, The Menu). The Princess needs her neighbors in the Jungle Kingdom (including Donkey Kong, played by Sausage Party’s Seth Rogen) to help fight back Bowser and his crew and brings Mario and devoted sidekick Toad (Keegan-Michael Key, Tomorrowland) along so they can look for Luigi.

What’s happened with The Super Mario Bros. Movie is that it has been designed to please the largest capacity crowds as possible by putting in the least amount of critical thinking. The widest net has been cast, and when you do that, you may bring in more money, but you sacrifice the creative energy that almost always fuels these features. Absolutely nothing is put up to block/challenge/question norms or nature, so we don’t feel any real reward when our heroes succeed. Directors Aaron Horvath & Michael Jelenic have so little to work with from a narrative angle that they may get a few exciting performances out of the group (why people are trashing Pratt’s performance is beyond me; it’s Black’s they should be concerned about) but much of the film is flat as an angry mushroom squashed by a powered-up Mario.

A big disappointment is that there aren’t enough references to other properties in the Nintendo Universe. With Super Mario Worlds now at several Universal Studios theme parks, the companies should be front-loading characters and easter eggs into this movie for use down the road. Fogle was the screenwriter for one of The Lego Movies, and those films worked out brilliant ways to include winking references to other pieces of pop culture. There’s none here, with characters moving from Point A to Point D and no one bothering to discuss the B and C moments that are often the bread and butter to deepening characters, animated or not.

Resorting to cheap ‘80s nostalgia needle-drops (films should have to be approved to use Bonnie Tyler and a-ha music and prove why it makes sense from now on) is the final straw that Game Over-ed The Super Mario Bros. Movie for me. Why not take a page from the recently opened Super Mario World in Hollywood and have Toad sing some of these songs instead? YouTube some of the squeaky-voiced character’s covers of pop music that’s played in the park and enjoy the weirdness. Even with the last ten minutes that rallied back with the frenetic energy the entire movie should have been running on, there isn’t enough power to level up very far from its 1993 predecessor. It only made me want to go back and try that one again. 

Where to watch The Super Mario Bros. Movie

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