The Super Mario Bros Movie: The Kotaku Australia Review

The Super Mario Bros Movie: The Kotaku Australia Review

The Super Mario Bros Movie is a movie that drapes itself in the trappings of one of Nintendo’s most beloved IP but doesn’t do anything exciting or unexpected with it. There are some of you that will head straight to the comments to say that that’s exactly what you want from a movie like this. Allow me to head you off: If you just want a movie that plays the hits, unconnected to little but your own nostalgia for the games, buy a ticket. This is that movie. I don’t think you’re wrong for wanting to see it, nor do I think you’re wrong for enjoying it! My argument is that you should want more — want better — from a movie like this. Hear me out.

The film sets its stakes immediately, introducing Jack Black’s Bowser as he lays waste to a frozen kingdom home to a race of penguin people. Here, he secures a Power Star, an item that will help him take the Mushroom Kingdom. The story quickly moves into the real world, where Mario and Luigi have just started their own plumbing business after splitting from Wrecking Crew owner proprietor Spike, a reference to the 1984 game of the same name (one of about a million similar references the film crams into its slim 90-minute runtime). After their first for-hire job goes awry, Mario sees a news broadcast about a sewerage flood underway in Brooklyn. Sensing a business opportunity already in progress, Mario rallies Luigi and the pair head off to “save Brooklyn.” A brief wrestle with a pressure valve sends the pair tumbling downward into an underground space filled with pipes (a sign on the wall helpfully reads ‘World 1-2’, just in case you couldn’t figure it out). Investigating a large green pipe on a nearby wall sends both brothers tumbling into the worlds of the Mushroom Kingdom.

Beyond one half-hearted gesture later in the film related to Peach’s origin, The Super Mario Bros Movie never explains where this pipe came from, why it’s there, or what connection our world has with Nintendo’s iconic video game universe. Mario and Luigi are separated in the warp pipe, with Luigi stranded in Bowser’s home the Dark Lands, while Mario heads on to the Mushroom Kingdom.

From there, the plot plays out in much the way you would expect. Mario’s central motivation is that he wants to get his brother back, and goes to meet with Princess Peach to ask for her help. With Bowser’s forces now bearing down upon her kingdom, Peach has problems of her own. Because it’s clear that Bowser will use Luigi for leverage, she agrees to include Mario in her plans to defeat the King of the Koopas. First stop: Kong Country, to rally an army.

There are things that The Super Mario Bros Movie does very well. When it meaningfully leans into its video game roots, the film genuinely sings. There is a sequence early in the film where Mario moves athletically through a construction site that approximates the original NES game that tells you everything you need to know about the guy: he’s a determined problem solver, who refuses to give up, and who will go out of his way to help his brother, the only other person in his family that seems to believe in him besides their mother. There are nods to other games from Nintendo’s long catalogue scattered through the film — some obvious, like the inclusion of the entire Donkey Kong Country cast, and some less so, like having certain characters fight using their movesets from Super Smash Bros. The creative decision to make Jack Black’s Bowser a Reddit incel that can’t imagine why Peach wouldn’t immediately love him is a genuinely funny one, and relieving Anya Taylor-Joy’s Peach of her longstanding duties as a damsel-in-distress is a wise, if obvious, move.

The film’s principal cast clearly enjoy the parts they’ve been handed, and Chris Pratt provides a strong and surprisingly dynamic performance as Mario himself. The film’s producers pulled a bit of a shifty with its marketing, deliberately planting alternate line readings from Pratt in the trailers to stir up social media. Pratt’s final performance is exactly what the studio ordered — befuddled leading man vibes, with real energy and enthusiasm behind the occasional Wahoos and Letsa Go’s. Pratt is, of course, still just playing himself, though, which is also what the studio ordered. The film falls over itself to give long-time Mario actor Charles Martinet his cameo in what is almost literally the first second it possibly can, almost throwing away what could have been a better or more meaningful moment for one of the most legendary voices in video games. By way of apology, it immediately recasts him in a second role as Mario’s father, one Martinet assumes with a voice so unrecognisable that I only realised it was him after I’d left the theatre.

Illumination’s animation work is perhaps the film’s highest point, and the part of the film where it feels like there is true artistry on display. Every part of the film’s visual style, every character, every stitch on Mario and Luigi’s hats, every hair in the moustaches, is rendered in loving and careful detail. The models are expressive and perfectly evoke the heart and soul of each character. The Mushroom Kingdom (and every world the film visits) is beautiful and is a rare example of the film weaving the classic platform tropes of the games into the fabric of its world. It’s all really beautiful work, and it’s this part of the film that makes me want to buy another ticket. I want to soak in the wonderful work being done right there on the screen. I look forward to being able to watch this in 4K and on the best panel I can find.

Brian Tyler’s score is a loving homage to the work of longtime Super Mario series composer Koji Kondo, one of the greatest and most underrated musical minds of the last 50 years. You can listen to the whole thing on Spotify. It’s really very good, and I mean absolutely no disrespect to Tyler whatsoever, a contemporary composer whose original work I admire a great deal, but despite how much of Kondo’s decades-long discography he squeezes into his score, you have to wonder how much better we could have had it if the maestro himself had composed the music for the film.

A final note on the music and then I’ll move on: the film is peppered with 1980s pop hits like A-ha’s Take On Me and Bonnie Tyler’s Holding Out For A Hero. I strongly feel that the film’s editors should have gone rogue and deleted them all. They don’t fit the tone, they diminish Kondo’s instantly-recognisable themes, and the only connective tissue for their being in the movie at all is, as far as I can tell, “Super Mario Bros came out in the 80s, and so did these songs.” Awful.

This thought — ‘we could have had it so much better if’ — kept recurring throughout much of the movie. Imagine how much better we could have had it if the movie was more willing to meaningfully engage with Super Mario‘s history beyond going for references that coax an easy smile out of the audience. I recognise that! It’s Mario Kart! It’s the Rainbow Road! I recognise that too! It’s the Tanuki suit! It’s the Cat suit! The movie doesn’t tell us why these things are important or even why they exist; it assumes that the audience already knows that they loom large in Mario canon and hopes that that will be enough. For some, it will be, and most will argue (correctly) that this is a family film aimed at a distinctly younger audience. It’s that simple brand of family film that parents can drop the kids in front of and know that, for the next hour and a half, they can take a break. Those films are worth their weight in gold to put-upon parents everywhere but often aren’t much scratch as works of art in their own right. When your competition is making branded films like Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse and The Lego Batman Movie, true family films that have something to offer young and old alike (and most importantly, have something to say about the brands they are attached to), there must be a pressure to lift your game. When Pixar is still pumping out exemplary original family films in the same space, there’s little room to rest on your laurels.

Sadly, The Super Mario Bros Movie seems content to do exactly that. It doesn’t really have anything to say about Super Mario, or even about video games or video game adaptations, for that matter. Instead, it rolls out well-trodden animation tropes like Never Giving Up, Not Listening To Your Parents, and Being Nice To Your Little Brother.

And so, The Super Mario Bros Movie, on a scale from Mama-Mia to Molto Bene: it’s a-fine.

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