Before I take you to the bummer circus that is a critical review of a children's movie, I want to talk about something Nintendo is typically good at: protecting its plumber pal Mario. Look at Nintendo's history as a game maker, and you'll find very few Mario-centric games per decade. They're rare, and they're typically not cash-in rehashes of what's come before. The unspoken Nintendo bible seems to say, if Super Mario is the star, nearly everything around him should be new and weird.
That said, the game series' propensity for surprise is absolutely wasted in The Super Mario Bros. Movie. Honestly, if you told me ChatGPT wrote and produced this film, building it entirely out of existing series' elements, I'd believe it. A plumber warps from Brooklyn to a magical kingdom, becomes its new hero for seemingly no reason, beats the bananas out of a talking ape, rides a go-kart on a racetrack made of rainbow dust, and fights a steroid-pumped turtle who is desperate to marry the only female human within 10,000 miles.
Those elements, of course, are places and characters you've seen before. In movie form, Nintendo can rebuild Princess Peach's castle to the brick-by-brick level; it can dress Mario in familiar power-up suits; it can play snazzy orchestral versions of classic 8-bit songs; it can pepper its environments with blink-and-you'll-miss-'em references to older games.
That's fine if you want to examine the hell out of the film's Blu-ray version in a few months—or if you're satisfied by the nerd-snake-eating-itself nature of unsatisfying pap like Ready Player One—but TSMBM rarely feels cohesive in its attempts to chain all of its nostalgia together. The film could very well have tried doing something new for the series, in the form of making us care about its main characters' relationships, but instead, its dedication to slapstick and action sequences play more like a 3D artist's demo reel on YouTube.
The film opens with brothers Mario (voiced by Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day) beginning to bond, but that's quickly interrupted by pedestrian action sequences in a 3D-cartoon version of Brooklyn. Their attempt to start a plumbing business isn't going great, and we watch them engage in hollow slapstick for roughly 12 minutes, with hints of legitimate chemistry bubbling up, before the duo is ripped apart en route to the Mushroom Kingdom.
From there, Mario fails to connect with most of his other prominent on-screen partners. We get a squeaky, one-dimensional Toad (Keegan Michael-Key) and a laughably disinterested Anya Taylor Joy as Princess Peach. At one point, the latter avoids one of Mario's questions by staring into space and giving a zero-conviction reading of the line, "There's a huge universe out there, with a lot of galaxies." (BTW, if you're out there online dating, I recommend sending that as a final text before ghosting anyone.)
The best stuff comes when Mario faces off with Donkey Kong, voiced by a surprisingly amusing Seth Rogen—who has admitted he didn't change his voice or persona while playing the role. The fact that he's one of the film's acting highlights says a lot about what you should expect here. I genuinely laughed and rooted for Mario and Donkey Kong as they progressed from antagonists to unlikely allies—and that brief success made me realize how hollow the rest of the film's patchwork of scenes felt in comparison.
To its credit, there's never been a prettier version of the Mario franchise in any media. In CGI terms, we're up to, like, PlayStation 6-level graphics, fellow gamers. When Bowser bathes a castle in flame, it frames the whole scene with a mix of convincing fire, smoke, shadow, and wreckage. Bloopers, the white squid from the very first SMB game (this kind of Super Mario recall is an every-six-seconds requirement for watching this film), are rendered with translucent, bioluminescent skin, revealing a soft underbelly of organs beneath their familiar outer form. Dry Bones (they debuted in Super Mario Bros. 3, and yes, I can do this all day) fall apart and come back to life in newly haunting fashion, their beady red eyes casting eerie light through their entire exposed skeletons.
Of course, there's a bedazzling Mario Kart sequence, because more people have played Mario Kart than have gotten the COVID vaccine, and it's shamelessly video-gamey, and every child in the theater is going to lose their candy-gobbling mind while Mario and friends skrrt dem purp sparks.
But all of that is boring to me compared to the constant laugh-out-loud potential of other games-to-film translations. We've been feasting as moviegoing gamers for the past few years: Detective Pikachu had genuinely inspired and hilarious moments, while Sonic the Hedgehog and its sequel eschewed overwrought nostalgia in favor of both going fast and taking the important friendship-building stuff slower. Hell, the first Mortal Kombat film is funnier and more engaging.
So, yes, it's maybe the sixth-best game-to-film conversion ever made, which is like ranking Panera Bread sandwiches. If you're just trying to see a new Mario movie in 2023 at a theater with some friends, you'll be fine with this one. It's not embarrassingly bad, Anya Taylor Joy's awful vocal performance notwithstanding. In a few scenes, one character talks at length about existential dread and the hopelessness of life, which drew the heartiest laughs in my theater. Jack Black's turn as Bowser includes a few Tenacious D-styled songs for some reason, if you're into that.
And Chris Pratt's Mario voice isn't as bad as I'd expected. He just doesn't have a lot to say as the character, aside from a lot of "mamma mia"—often said in protracted, slow-mo, leaping-over-something fashion. Because TSMBM is that kind of film: lots of running and jumping toward little more than the next "I know that video game!" Easter egg in the background.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie opens Wednesday, April 5.