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‘Super Mario Bros. Movie’ review: A fun but safe Mushroom Kingdom romp

Nintendo takes no risks.

The children’s movie Super Mario Bros. is virtually flawless. It is brilliantly drawn, has enough action to keep kids from becoming bored, and practically every character is distinctive and endearing (including Bowser himself, thanks to Jack Black’s comedy prowess). Nintendo obviously didn’t want to make the same errors as the other Mario movie, the live-action 1993 feature that, strangely, some ’90s youngsters liked (it’s all we had! ), but ultimately failed to capture the enchantment of the games. This movie, on the other hand, is jam-packed with all the Nintendo classics. For adults, it’s a nostalgic romp, and for kids, it’s just good fun.

However, it’s very safe. Perhaps the excellent non-Pixar animated films we’ve seen over the past ten years—especially those that Phil Lord and Chris Miller worked on (The Lego Movie! Into the Spider-Verse!—have spoiled me a little. Nintendo obviously didn’t want to take any significant creative chances with this adaptation, though. The writing by Matthew Fogel has just the right amount of humour and pop culture allusions to keep us entertained, and filmmakers Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic create some creative sequences. But because of the whims of an ageing corporate dinosaur, it almost feels like the movie is imprisoned in a nostalgia castle. (Be patient.)

That wasn’t an issue for the children in my matinee audience, but if you’ve waited decades to see a truly fantastic Mario adaptation, it’s a little disappointing. As with the most recent live-action Sonic the Hedgehog film, Super Mario Bros. is “fine.” There is no attempt to go beyond the bare necessities: Chris Pratt’s spoken Mario and Charlie Day’s Luigi are two lost Brooklyn plumbers who mysteriously end up in the Mushroom Kingdom. Luigi, who is a natural-born coward, is almost immediately kidnapped by Bowser’s henchmen, and Mario and Princess Peach (an animated Anya Taylor-Joy) must act quickly to save him. Meanwhile, evil Bowser has plans to either wed Peach or, if that doesn’t work, to rule the kingdom.

Just take a look at all those Punch-Out! characters on the wall! The movie immediately throws you into a barrage of references, which will either make veteran Nintendo fans grin or make you roll your eyes. Although Lumalee from Mario Galaxy almost completely steals the movie, I personally preferred watching how all the nostalgia material was used. The directors also display a lot of visual flair, such as in an early Brooklyn scene that transforms into a 2D chase action. If only some of the musical selections had been more original. (A Kill Bill allusion? During Mario’s training montage, did Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out for a Hero” play? “Come on.”

It’s always nice to see children’s films go above and beyond our expectations. The Lego Movie, for example, dealt with issues like capitalism’s prison, the necessity of defying constricting social norms, and how fandom can ruin something you actually love, in addition to being a funny adventure for kids and a clever comedy for adults. Mario learns to eat mushrooms in Super Mario Bros. because they physically grow him large and strong. How sub textual!

In the meantime, I can still respect a film that only succeeds in amusing kids. I’ve watched a lot of genuinely terrible children’s films over the years, with bad writing, unattractive animation, and production designs. I wish I could get back the time I spent viewing 2011’s The Smurfs or Space Jam: A New Legacy. Despite being simple and safe, The Super Mario Bros. is not a time waster.

One is that Mario and the Mushroom Kingdom have never looked this good. Although Illumination may not have the same level of success as Pixar, this film features some of the most fluid animation I’ve seen in a while, as well as exquisitely detailed characters and vibrant, richly detailed worlds. Although I adored Super Mario Odyssey, its graphics were limited by the Switch’s dated hardware. It’s a visual feast that makes me long for the time when a Mario game could look as lush.

One is that the Mushroom Kingdom and Mario have never looked better. The animation in this movie is some of the most fluid I’ve seen in a while, with wonderfully realised characters and vivid, highly detailed worlds, even though Illumination may not be as successful as Pixar. Super Mario Odyssey was fantastic, but the graphics were constrained by the Switch’s outdated hardware. I yearn for the days when a Mario game could look as luscious after experiencing this visual feast.

Despite all of Chris Pratt’s fanfare, his Mario voice is only passable. The film makes fun of Charles Martinet’s poor accent (Martinet also provides the voices for two characters), but Pratt’s rendition sounds like someone trying to pass for a schlubby Brooklynite. That’s especially unexpected considering how much energy Pratt gave his Lego Movie lead character.

The Super Mario Bros. Movie’s greatest letdown is that it comes so darned close to being a truly outstanding film. The movie would be much stronger if it allowed Jack Black to fully express his Tenacious D abilities as Bowser or if it gave the characters more time to develop. Why not make that Mario Kart sequence a little more difficult? (Even Moana included a Mad Max: Fury Road allusion!) Why not devote a little more time to the conflict/developing bromance between Mario and Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen)?

It is certain that Nintendo has a hit on its hands with a predicted opening weekend of at least $150 million. A follow-up is unavoidable. I only hope that the business will be more relaxed the next time. What fun is a Mario adventure, after all, without a few imaginative leaps across chasms of uncertainty?