As video games have grown increasingly sophisticated, so too have their cinematic adaptations evolved. Infamously the first Super Mario Bros. movie, now 30 years old, is a live-action, laughable travesty of bizarre plot and terrible writing.
Now, 30 years later, multiple generations of gamers and Nintendo-fans finally get the Mario movie adaptation we deserve, courtesy of Universal Studios and animation studio Illumination.
Mario (Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day) are New York plumbers, wearing their trademark red and green outfits. Their brotherly love is adorable, especially Mario’s protectiveness toward his younger (but taller!) brother. The first act is a little slow, as we get the surprising introduction of the entire Mario family — and some interesting daddy issues for Mario.
Once our duo gets sucked into the Mushroom Kingdom, however, we’re off on a grand tour of the beloved gaming world, lovingly brought to life by Illumination.
The animation and colors are phenomenal as kids (and their parents) pick up on the many creatures and hazards of the familiar Mario universe. The many Easter eggs will encourage repeat viewers, but it doesn’t take a die hard fan to recognize koopa armies, teleporting pipes, and flying platforms.
Poor Luigi becomes separated from this brother, and is subject to frightening torment, including lava pits, undead koopa chases, and the creepy masked shy guys. He spends most of the time as the real damsel in distress, awaiting rescue from Mario.
Thankfully Mario quickly meets his allies, including Toad (Keegan-Michael Key), Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy), and Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen) as they prepare for the coming battle.
Peach is anything but a damsel; she’s a natural-born leader and platforming savant. In an interesting twist, she’s the one who teaches Mario about power-ups and how to navigate the dangers of the Mushroom Kingdom. She also has a mysterious backstory, and hopefully we can explore more of that in future sequels.
Donkey Kong has a fun role as Mario’s rival and frenemy, a cute nod that dates back to the original Donkey Kong video game, which was itself the first appearance of Mario. Meeting with the Kongs leads to an awesome racing sequence inspired by Mario Kart, one of Mario’s most popular and successful spinoff series.
But the glowing star award goes to Jack Black’s Bowser. As Mario’s often one-dimensional antagonist, Bowser is given incredible life with Jack Black’s passionate voice work. The underdeveloped plot, in which Bowser basically just has a crush on Princess Peach, feels weighty and meaningful thanks to Black’s charismatic performance, vacillating between sympathetically goofy, to frighteningly violent.
And yes, Illumination is smart enough to know that when you cast Jack Black, you absolutely let him sing!
Speaking of music, the incredible orchestral score perfectly rearranges classic tunes for nostalgic ears. It meshes well with classic 1980s pop songs used throughout the film, proving once again that Illumination has perfected the art of blending animation with licensed music.
The climax is a thrilling, breathless set piece of high-energy Mario-style action, followed by a surprisingly emotional finale, anchored by Mario’s never-say-die attitude. To the many young and old gamers who played countless levels that ended in Mario’s abrupt death, that perseverance is a wonderful character trait to hang Mario’s trademark hat upon.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie has been rated PG by the MPAA. They are a few frightening sequences, mostly when Luigi first arrives in the Mushroom Kingdom and is chased by skeletal dry bones into a spooky castle. The movie also doesn’t shy away from violence, including characters getting pummeled, smashed, and singed.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie keeps things simple, almost painfully so, relying on its rich animation, colorful world, and well-paced action sequences. It’s a beautiful homage to gaming’s biggest icon, and leaves plenty of room for more adventure.