Video game movies have some of the worst track records out there, and Nintendo’s original Plumber has one of the earliest bombs on record. That’s a lot on the line over thirty years later with even more games and additions to the Mario lore popping up in between, with not just Mario but Luigi and even Toad now having their own critically loved games as well. So did Illumination deliver on the new gamble of taking Nintendo’s Italian Stallion into an animated direction?
Let’s address the massive Koopa in the room first, that being the casting for the film’s pivotal voice work. Chris Pratt is exactly what you would expect- Chris Pratt, but with a slight accent that sounds like he hid in a Brooklyn dumpster for about a day and figured that was enough. It was passable, but surprisingly when he actually did try to do the accurate Mario voice it sounded much better than the rest of the film.
Other voice actors were fantastic on varying levels, with standouts being Anya Taylor-Joy and Seth Rogen. Taylor-Joy seems delighted to be playing Peach, and this iteration has no business being this much of a badass (the internet is going to be down bad, too). Rogen as Donkey Kong though is sheer and utter brilliance. There’s a point where DK starts moving forward looking super menacing, only for Rogen’s signature laugh to come through and make it absurdly funny.
Keegan Michael-Key. was a fantastic Toad, making the character’s usual voice a little more tolerable and toned down. Jack Black as Bowser was perfection, no notes. Black has always been a fantastic voice actor, but this was him at his best, with musical numbers and plenty of fantastic humor. The best part is- it doesn’t even sound like Jack Black! He’s just that good.
Charlie Day was fiercely underutilized and deserves his own PG-13 Luigi’s Mansion spinoff series. The money is right there, Nintendo. Take it.
Story and Score
Okay, with the big fish out of the way, how did the story hold up? Surprisingly fun, and a step up from the previous Mario film. The movie took a different approach and flipped the story we know so well, with Mario and Peach going on a quest to recruit the Kong Kingdom in a war against Bowser, rapidly approaching the Mushroom Kingdom with Luigi as his prisoner. Bowser of course is just hopelessly in love with Peach, and going to the kingdom to ask for her hand in marriage.
Characters are where the important moments come from, and the writing in combination with voice work nailed it. Peach was the hero, needing no rescuing and frequently being the one to step in and rescue a somewhat useless Mario. Luigi isn’t necessarily a part of the entire movie as much as just the beginning and end where he gets a little development as the little brother, but characteristically the second player to Mario.
The Brooklyn beginning feels it could have been left out and entirely and kept the brothers as plumbers in the Mushroom Kingdom instead of setting up just a couple of jokes and the climactic fight in the New York streets in an event that no doubt was a new record for mass casualties in NYC. The concept of powerups was used as a story prop, which is okay but seemed a bit forced in places.
The film takes its time to get going, not really ramping up until the two brothers enter their respective paths in the film. Luigi’s path is unfortunately mired in being Bowser’s prisoner, mostly just sitting around in a cell and letting the other characters do the comic relief, though it did end up being a standout point of the movie thanks to the hopeless nihilism embodied in adorableness.
While the story is decent, it’s very obviously storyboarded to go from one set piece to another, with each paying tribute to some era or game of the long-running series. Said set pieces are always fun, moving from everything to the character’s original Donkey Kong appearance and traveling up Rainbow Road for some Smash Bros. homages as well. I’m personally a little hurt by the lack of love for Super Mario: Sunshine, but hopefully, a sequel will solve that.
Speaking of! Stay after the credits for sequel bait.
The score is what blew me away. Composer Brian Tyler has been in the Hollywood bubble for a long time now, and you’ve heard him in movies like Power Rangers and the recent Scream IV. His work here takes such fantastically loving care with all the familiar themes of the games written by Koji Kondo so many years ago.
Everything is so fantastically layered soundwise, and the way various themes and easter eggs were fit into the background will have fans looking even further to find everything. You’ll immediately notice the best startup sound a console has ever had as Luigi’s ringtone early in the movie.
Overall, the film is fun. A lot of love was obviously behind many of the set pieces, with animators having fun with what was seemingly a big-budget version of Mario Maker. At the end of the day remember that this is a children’s film first, with a reliance on parent nostalgia to get them hooked as well. I took my daughter to see it for her first movie in a theater, and she had the time of her life so it’s kid approved.
On a scale of House of the Dead to Sonic the Hedgehog 2, The Super Mario Bros. Movie sits pretty snugly up there with the first Sonic film and the Ratchet and Clank animated feature. A fun time for everyone and Jack Black’s song about Peach will get stuck in your head.