The year 2023 has become the year of video game adaptations, with “The Last of Us” and “Tetris” taking center stage in the film and television zeitgeist four months in. But there’s a new, lighter and brighter video game film swooping in to change the tone from intense gripping drama to dreamy family-friendly delight.
That movie is none other than “The Super Mario Bros. Movie,” an endlessly charming take on the ragtag quests of a duo of Italian-American plumber brothers. With a strong voice cast helmed by Chris Pratt, the movie purports itself as a hero’s journey of epic proportions that will draw you in with comedy, nostalgia, and a visual feast—and that couldn’t be closer to the truth.
“The Super Mario Bros. Movie” follows familiar heroes Mario and Luigi (voiced by Pratt and Charlie Day, respectively), two brothers living in Brooklyn who have quit their day jobs to start a plumbing business. In an effort to make a name for themselves as trusted handymen of the neighborhood, they end up in the sewer system trying to fix a water main break—which sees them transported down a mystifying pipe that leads to a bold and bright world unlike our own. However, the brothers get separated and Mario must go on a quest to reunite with his partner in crime.
Illumination has proven itself by now in the animation sphere, but they come to the plate with obvious pride and care on this property, giving fans vibrant and immersive visuals that recall both the original games and a sense of the studio’s own, now-signature style. The different worlds of the film—the Mushroom Kingdom, the Jungle Kingdom, Bowser’s Kingdom, and more—are all so rich and full of life.
There is a sense of realism within the film’s bubbly portrayal of Brooklyn just as much as there is endless whimsy and a sense of competitive bliss riding along the Rainbow Road. These are landscapes you want to dive into from your seat, enticing and inviting throughout the entire film.
There are so many sequences that feel like playing “Super Mario Bros.,” the game, and not just because some of them are supposed to be game sequences—all of the fight and action scenes are presented in a way that puts you in a first-person gaming experience. If you’ve ever wondered what it would feel like to be inside a “Super Mario Bros.” level, this film gets deliciously close. Not even Mario Kart is exempt from this experience and the Kart selection moment alone is a memorable taste of how well the movie positions the viewer as a player in a game.
Fans will be happy to know that the voice acting qualms that surrounded the film’s initial announcements were, truthfully, pretty unfounded in the end. Pratt nails a modernized, slightly subdued version of a stereotypical Brooklyn accent that comes off natural and inoffensive, a logical portrayal of the Mario character. Charlie Day’s Luigi is a bit more exaggerated, but they both still disappear into their respective roles.
That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it merely means they’re doing their jobs well. Plus, the nostalgia factor is heavily at play and it just feels good knowing neither of these characters feels inaccessible because of the voice work. That was what everyone was bracing for and it would have been a real shame, especially with the visual achievements in this feature. As far as supporting characters go, one of the film’s biggest MVPs is Keegan Michael-Key’s Toad, who is responsible for half of the movie’s most comedic moments. He has great sidekick energy and makes for a fantastic team player alongside Mario and Peach.
But the film’s creative team knew what it had in Jack Black. He makes a wonderfully big splash as Bowser, a performance that is definitely responsible for the other half of the film’s funniest moments. He’s the full package: menacing and vicious with a soft and insecure side that bubbles over at the perfect comedic moment.
Plus, they let him sing, which is one of his most obviously awesome talents—and he does not disappoint in the music department. The movie doesn’t overuse musical performances at all and it doesn’t adhere to a musical structure, so when they do employ Black’s ridiculous yet poignant tones they zap the audience with laughs.
But casting and animation are only the top two wins on this feature. When it comes to the source material, the film sticks pretty squarely within the canon of this video game universe—with the exception of some empowering changes to Peach’s character motives. She is a fierce monarch with a heart of gold who thinks almost nothing of charging into battle on behalf of her people.
It’s an obvious way to modernize her character, but it’s no less welcome anyway. It’s great to see her as an active and key part of the quest. When the movie isn’t switching things up with character it introduces some key musical sequences. In most films, it’s hard to nail just one needle drop but this film kills it in the popular song department with several specific, pumped up choices at smart moments.
That said, not everything lands in “The Super Mario Bros. Movie.” Despite such a vivacious and pleasing visual design overall, Princess Peach’s character is flatter and strangely shaped in comparison to everyone else. She doesn’t entirely feel like she exists in the same story, or even the same video game, as Mario. Thankfully, Anya Taylor-Joy’s voice performance is fun enough to keep you invested in her character’s smarts and leadership abilities.
A lot of the film’s jokes don’t land, at least for an adult audience, which will certainly make up a vast group for this picture. They may hit harder with young kids and, to be completely fair, not every joke can be for adults with a film like this. Nostalgia gives us this feeling of ownership over the IP, but through this movie so many young people will be diving into the Super Mario Bros. world for the first time—and thus, they need to be invited in with a bit of their own comedy as well.
But ultimately, the animated adventure is an exciting thrill ride through some of the most beloved realms in the gaming world. It’s hard not to fall in love with a film so earnest and proud of its origins. It’s fast, fun, and certainly never boring to look at—a compliment well paid to the film’s production design team, as well as the writers and directors Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic.
The Illumination team came together as a whole to produce a movie worthy of standing toe to toe with Mario’s storied legacy and, for the most part, the film does just that. Short of dropping onto the Rainbow Road ourselves there is no experience closer to being fully immersed in one of the world’s most beloved video games. Pair that with some great comedic moments and swoon-worthy visuals and it looks like “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” might just make a real mark on the feature animation world.