For the longest time there was one thing that was certain about Hollywood; that they couldn’t make a movie based on a video game. There were many attempts to be sure, but many of them resulted in spectacular failures, both at the box office and with critics and audiences. A poster child for the dismal record of video game movies was one that was based on the world’s most popular game: 1993’s Super Mario Bros. The live action film starring Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo as the titular brothers was so removed visually from what the original 8-bit game represented that audiences didn’t know what to make of it. The film would go on to be a cautionary tale of how not to adapt a video game into a movie and the industry for the longest time steered clear of going all in on video games as sources for their movies. But, in recent years, something has changed. Not only are movie studios starting to adapt video games into feature films and series, but in some cases they are actually succeeding in their adaptations. The Sonic the Hedgehog movies for instance wildly exceeded expectations, especially considering that the first one went through an extensive eleventh hour re-design of the main character that many thought was going to doom the movie. And on television, a series adaptation of the Playstation game The Last of Us is not only earning high viewership numbers, but it’s also being critically lauded as one of the best shows on TV in general. I think one thing that has turned the tide with video game adaptations in film and television recently is the fact that we have finally have a generation of filmmakers working now who grew up playing video games. This isn’t an older generation trying to figure out what these kids are liking any more; now the filmmakers are bringing a lifetime of knowledge about how to tell stories through the video game medium and giving them the admiration they deserve as they adapt them into a different medium. With this change in the culture, it would make sense that Mario would get another chance on the big screen.
Super Mario Bros. started in Japan in 1985 before eventually making it’s way to North American markets in 1987. Mario Bros. became what they call in the video game industry a “hardware seller,” because the appeal of the game was so immense that Mario was very much responsible that millions of households in America had a Nintendo Game System. Often packaged with the console itself, nearly every Nintendo user played the game, and it’s presence in the pop culture spread like wildfire. As a mascot for the Nintendo corporation, Mario was to video games what Mickey Mouse had become to cartoons; a character recognized all over the world. Mario’s creator, game designer Shigeru Miyamoto, didn’t just rest on his laurels with the first game. He would continue to refine the character and his gameplay through subsequent titles in the series, each one taking advantage of the advancing graphical capabilities of each new Nintendo console. Every time new hardware was released, a new Mario game was to follow, and each game continues to build on what came before it, which has helped Mario to keep his relevancy nearly four decades later. As the series has gone on, not only has Mario managed to stay popular, but so have all the other characters that appear in those games; some even getting their own popular spinoffs. Mario’s brother Luigi has his own popular series called Luigi’s Mansion, where he goes ghost hunting, and there are games devoted to characters like Toadstool, Yoshi, and Mario’s doppelganger nemesis Wario. Now, there seems to be a major attempt to capitalize on the multi-generational appeal of the Mario series, with a major film studio involved in the action. This year, Universal Pictures is not only attempting another big screen adaptation of the game, but they’ve opened a new section of their Studio Lot park in Hollywood dedicated to the Mario franchise. As a wise move, they’ve avoided going the live action route like the doomed 1993 film, and instead gave the project to their Illumination Animation division, with full blessing from Nintendo. The only question is if they are able to make Super Mario Bros work this time as a movie experience.
The story begins with the two Mario brothers, Mario (Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day) starting off their new careers as expert plumbers in present day Brooklyn. They unfortunately suffer several setbacks on their first day on the job, and it leads to their family worrying about their futures, including their highly skeptical Father (Charles Martinet). A local water main break in their area convinces Mario that they may have a second shot at success, so they take their gear and travel down into the lower maintenance levels of the New York City. There they find a mysterious green pipe, which unexpectedly sucks them in and sends them on an interdimensional journey. The brothers get split up, with Luigi being sent to a dark, foreboding place called the Dark Lands, and Mario ending up in the Mushroom Kingdom. While exploring the strange new place, Mario runs into a talking mushroom creature named Toad (Keegan-Michael Key), who agrees to help Mario by guiding him to the castle of Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy). Mario meets the Princess and learns of the dangers that faces her kingdom. Across their world, the tyrannical leader of the Dark Lands, the Koopa King Bowser (Jack Black) is causing terror with his army and flying fortress. Peach believes that Mario can be of some help, so she agrees to help him find his brother if he agrees to aid in their fight against Bowser. She believes that the key to stopping Bowser’s army is by recruiting the help of the Monkey Kingdom, and that means having to challenge their mightiest warrior, Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen). Meanwhile, Bowser advances towards the Mushroom Kingdom and learns that Mario has allied with the Princess, after Bowser’s wizard assistant Kamek (Kevin Michael Richardson) has captured Luigi in the Dark Lands. Can Peach and Mario succeed in bringing Donkey Kong and his forces to their side to stop Bowser from destroying the Mushroom Kingdom?
Truth be told, there isn’t much to making a movie adaptation of Super Mario Bros. The original game’s story is as simplistic as it can be (Mario saves the Princess from the depths of Bowser’s castle) and many of the other games deviate very little from that central premise. The bar is already set low by the 1993 film as well, which is evident upon watching it that the filmmakers had no idea what they were adapting in the first place. One of the things that worried me is the fact that Illumination Animation was involved. Illumination is a studio that has yet to make a movie that I consider anything more than just okay. They do have a quality animation team, but they also seem to do just the bare minimum when it comes to their stories. Through their Despicable Me, Minions, and Secret Life of Pets series of films, they are a studio that is more geared toward broad entertainment rather than actually reaching their audience on an emotional or intellectual level. That’s often why they never gain the critical reception that Disney, Pixar, or Dreamworks do with their movies. On the other hand, their broad entertainment style is what has also helped them to make a killing at the box office. Their films consistently play very well in theaters, mainly due to the fact that their target demographic is little kids and also because they aggressively market their movies months in advance. I’m sure that Super Mario Bros. will do exactly the same, because the way I felt about this movie is the way I felt seeing every other Illumination movie; underwhelmed but aware of how big this movie will be with it’s target audience. It disappoints me a lot that this kind of box office success is keeping Illumination from actually improving as an animation studio. While other studios take chances, sometimes to the risk of failure, Illumination plays it down the middle safe and it results in their movies coming across as boring. Sadly, Super Mario Bros. is another one of those movies, and it’s equally heartbreaking that they are doing so with such a legacy brand as Mario and Nintendo.
What I had the biggest problem with in this movie is the lack of focus. It just seems like each scene was crafted to indulge the audience with references to the games, but none of it really adds up. The thing that especially gets sacrificed the most in this movie is character development. Not once in this movie do I ever fully get what Mario or any of the other characters wants; they are all just passively playing their role in the story that vaguely follows the progression of the games. There seems to be kernels of character arcs set up early in the film, like Mario wanting to impress his family, but that goes by the wayside once Mario arrives in the Mushroom Kingdom, where the story just puts Mario through the paces of becoming the hero who will stop Bowser. Mario’s family is all but forgotten for most of the movie, until the very end suddenly shoehorns the message back in at the last minute. Also, most of the characters in the story never change throughout the progression of the plot. Mario never gains the confidence to be a hero; he’s already the more confident of the two brothers in the beginning of the movie, and the film never advances beyond that. The way the movie starts, with a lot of emphasis placed on the relationship of the brothers, also gets abandoned as the characters spend most of the movie apart. Luigi’s screen time is also shockingly short in this movie too. Like with so much of Illumination’s movies, it’s all about cramming in more time for humorous bits to please the younger viewers, and in doing so, character moments get pushed to the side. The pacing of this movie is just a freight train of Easter eggs and sight gags, with no time to stop and center the story itself and actually find it’s core. Yes, I know, the Mario games are simplistic too, but you got think that other animation studios would’ve tried a little harder to find purpose and meaning in the story they were telling. Can you imagine what Pixar or Dreamworks would have done with the Mario IP. Honestly, I don’t know why Universal didn’t take this film to Dreamworks, since they are also a part of the studio, and have a better track record of adapting already existing IP (Mr. Peabody and Sherman).
At the same time, this isn’t a complete failure of a movie, nor is it the worst video game adaptation. For one thing, the animation is exceptional. The direct involvement with Nintendo was a big help, because every character is on model with their video game counterpart, and the environments that they inhabit are beautifully realized. I especially like the ominous appearance of Bowser’s floating fortress, which seems like a volcanic mountain suspended in the air and with Bowser’s face as it’s intimidating mast head. If you’ve played the game, As I’m sure most of you from my generation have, you will see references galore throughout the movie, and most of them are true to the games from where they came from. There’s even a clever reference to the Mario Kart games when Mario and his crew have to build their selective vehicles. Even if you aren’t a gamer, you’ll still appreciate how colorful and imaginative the movie is. As someone who has grown up playing these games since childhood, I can definitely say that they nail the visual look of what a Mario game should be. It’s definitely a far cry from the grungy, dystopian world from the 1993 Mario Bros. In particular, this movie draws a lot of visual inspiration from the 3D graphics Mario games; from the Nintendo 64 generation on. Princess Peach’s castle is definitely inspired by the Super Mario 64 game, which has served as the basis of design for every Mario Bros. structure in the games ever since. The movie also uses clever ways to re-imagine things that before only appeared in the 2D classic games. The arena in which Mario Fights Donkey Kong features bright red steel beams, a reference to the retro arcade game from which both Mario and Donkey Kong both made their debuts in the early days of gaming. The movie also does a neat perspective change to emulate the side-scrolling gameplay of the Mario games in a couple of moments. Where the game has many shortcomings in it’s story, it thankfully still serves up a strong visual feast for the audience, and in a way that is respectful and in line with the legacy of the games.
One of the things that a lot of people were worried about going into this movie was how the celebrity voice cast would work out playing these iconic characters. In particular, a lot of scrutiny fell upon the peculiar casting of Chris Pratt as Mario. For many years, the voice of Mario has been provided by voice actor Charles Martinet, who has given Mario this very distinctive, peppy Italian-accented voice that is instantly recognizable the world over. Chris Pratt is no stranger to lending his voice to animated movies (The Lego Movie, Onward), but given the iconic nature of the way Mario sounds, the news of his casting was not received well by most of the public. The biggest worry is that like all the other characters that Chris Pratt has played in animated movies, his performance here was just going to be another variation of his own natural voice, which would not have fit the character at all. But, the final judgment must come after seeing the finished film. I do have to say that despite the casting of Chris Pratt not being ideal, he actually does an okay job in this film. For one thing, he doesn’t do the Italian stereotype voice the whole movie, but instead emulates a Brooklyn accent which is closer to being in his wheelhouse. After a while, the voice just sounds natural for this version of Mario, so at the very least the casting of Chris Pratt as Mario was not the worst case scenario. He’s also well matched with Charlie Day as Luigi, who was the ideal choice all along for that character. The voice cast overall does a fine job with the characters they have been cast as; it’s really just the script that let’s them down. Anya Taylor-Joy is a perfect choice as Princess Peach and Seth Rogan is frankly the only choice for Donkey Kong. The one who steals the film, however, is Jack Black as Bowser. Black goes above and beyond with his performance as the villainous tyrant, being adequately menacing when he needs to, but also laugh out loud funny in the most unexpected ways as well, all the while remaining true to the character. The movie even finds a way to work Jack Black’s musical background into the movie in what has to be the film’s finest moment. I also do appreciate that the movie did bring Charles Martinet on board to provide a few other voices; an acknowledgement of his long time legacy with the series of games. While a lot of worries surrounded how the voice cast would be used in this movie, I can definitely say that the actors did the best they could, and some were even better than we would have hoped. I hope this especially pull the pressure off of Chris Pratt, who actually did alright by this character.
I do know that this movie is going to do very well no matter what I say. A lot of anticipation has been built up for this movie, for both young audiences looking for something light and silly to watch, and also for their parents who grew up playing these games. If they find this movie satisfactory, then good on them. I on the other hand felt the movie fell short of it’s potential. Typical of other Illumination Animation movies, the film is all style and routine, without a resonate story at it’s center. I’ve seen many other animation studios take already established IP and develop films that not only utilize to properties to their full potential, but actually deliver a resonate and emotional story with it. The Lego Movie for example is a film that could’ve turned into a shameless feature length commercial for it’s title product, but in the hands of the right people (in this case, the duo of Christopher Miller and Phil Lord) it became an instant classic movie with a lot of heart at it’s center. Super Mario Bros. just doesn’t have that emotional center that it should have. Not once did I feel like I got to know these characters, nor care what they were doing. Even compared to recent video game adaptations the movie falls short. While the Sonic the Hedgehog movies are no masterpieces themselves, I still was able to understand the character motivations and be engaged by their development throughout the story. In those movies, they did a much better job of establishing what the character of Sonic wanted, which was a family and a purpose for being a hero. In Super Mario Bros. the main character starts off special, and just remains that all the way to the end. That makes his story boring by comparison. Visually, this movie gets the look of Mario’s world right, but within that pretty shell is a hollow story. So, it’s not quite a game over, but I feel that after so many years of waiting for a worthy Super Mario Bros. movie, it feels like the one we deserve is still hidden in another castle.