Nintendo has worked tirelessly over the past 30 years to fend off the grimy funk of the first Super Mario Bros. movie. Though that dark and drastic take on the material has its defenders (I like it), you can’t deny it’s not the same as the games at all. Ever protective of its enormous library of IP, Nintendo and Shigeru Miyamoto made sure the next Mario movie would be faithful. And Illumination’s The Super Mario Bros. Movie is absolutely a Nintendo game brought to dazzling life. It’s got the characters, world, and adventurous spirit right on the money. But those expecting something akin to The LEGO Movie might be left a bit cold.
Given the roster of comedy actors in the voice roles—especially Chris Pratt as Mario—one might be forgiven for thinking it would hew closer to the massively media literate humor of LEGO. But the jokes in the movie are much more straightforward and clearly aimed at a younger audience. Oh, old-school Nintendo fans will surely squeal at the sheer amount of Easter eggs and references to other titles and bits of Nintendo ephemera. But the story itself is right down the middle, true-blue hero stuff.
The movie opens with Mario (Pratt) and faithful if nervous brother Luigi (Charlie Day) trying like heck to get their new plumbing business off the ground. When a massive pipe bursts in the sewers of Brooklyn the brothers decide to fix it and make their name. Down in the bowels of the city, they find a pipe that sucks them into a magical new world. Luigi ends up in the realm of Bowser (Jack Black) and his Koopa army; Mario finds himself in the bright and cheerful Mushroom Kingdom. Bowser is en route to take over said kingdom and it’s up to Mario, a brave Toad (Keegan-Michael Key), and Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy) to retrieve Luigi and save the Toads. (Luigi is the damsel in this one rather than Peach, which is excellent.)
In order to achieve this goal, the Princess needs to recruit the Kong army. Cranky Kong (Fred Armisen), the ruler of the Jungle Kingdom, refuses unless Mario can defeat his son Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen) in single combat. Badda bing, badda boom, you get a Mario Kart sequence, you get platforming and power-ups, and you get all the sounds and sights you’d expect and hope for in an animated Nintendo movie.
Illumination is the perfect choice to make Mario movies. The animation is absolutely stunning, perfectly embodying the spirit of the games’ worlds. Several frenetic sequences bring what fans of the games know as core Mario stuff to life. We even get several fast-paced action beats that emulate the original 2D side-scrolling games. All of the settings look real—like it’s stop-motion. The colors pop, the action cooks, and you’ll never tire of looking at the whole frame.
Still, I was a bit surprised at how, sort of, unsurprising the movie is. At only 92 minutes, we don’t have much time for anything outside the main plot. The filmmakers packed a lot of Nintendo in that short runtime, and they want to make sure we see all of it. So we only have time for the broadest of story beats. Mario wants to make his family proud; Peach wants to save her people; Donkey Kong wants to prove he’s not just a meathead. It’s very by-the-numbers hero’s journey stuff. Not a complaint, just an observation. I’ll say it again: this isn’t The LEGO Movie. The most out-there stuff happens with Black as Bowser, who sings several love songs about Peach.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie is a very solid IP-driven animated movie. For Nintendo kids, I think it’ll scratch that itch very well. It’s got all the things. For anyone who doesn’t know or doesn’t care that much about Mario, you might find it little more than a colorful kids movie. And that’s fine! It’s fun, bring your children, bring your inner child, have a good time.