After 1993’s live-action film adaptation of Super Mario Bros. crashed and burned (in a lake of boiling lava), it’s understandable that Nintendo was a bit gun (or perhaps Koopa shell) shy when it came to bringing Mario back to the big screen. The live-action film, which ditched Bowser for a ridiculous and disgusting dinosaur humanoid, was trounced at the box office and walloped by critics. Three decades later, Nintendo, following the children’s IP playbook laid out by Sonic The Hedgehog and The Lego Movie, returns to theaters with a family friendly, primary-colored adventure that features animation nearly identical to the franchise’s recent video games (and not a single machine-gun wielding dinosaur).
In The Super Mario Bros. Movie, brothers Mario and Luigi have relocated from Italy/Japan/Moo Moo Farm to Brooklyn, New York, where they attempt to launch a plumbing business. While the brothers bust out their trademark Italian accents (“it’s-a me”) in the TV ads for their new plumbing venture, they’ve otherwise adopted new voices provided by Chris Pratt (for Mario) and Charlie Day (for Luigi). After an ill-fated house call, the plumbers try to save face by fixing the New York City sewer system (move over, New York City Mayor Eric Adams) only to be sucked into a warp pipe that deposits Mario in the Toadstool Kingdom with Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Luigi in a bleak underworld full of Dry Bones and Shy Guys.
After zipping around with his new bestie, Toad (Keegan-Michael Key), Mario is informed that Bowser (Jack Black) is destroying worlds and it’s up to him and Peach to defend all the cute sentient mushrooms. No longer a damsel-in-distress, Peach is now an action hero, and after she whips Mario into shape with a fun training montage that involves force-feeding him non-sentient mushrooms, the pair head off to recruit Donkey Kong (Seth Rogan) for their war with Bowser. The film proceeds with the assuredness of a Mario video game as it moves through set pieces modeled after the Donkey Kong arcade masterpiece, levels from Mario Kart, and the latest Mario iterations for the Switch. Obviously, Mario and Luigi reconnect and face off against Bowser in a lava-filled lair, and the big bad is vanquished in the end. The only difference from the Nintendo games is that viewers don’t have to replay a section 45 times because they keep getting nicked by a rogue Koopa shell.
Perhaps the film’s greatest asset is its clever reliance on the treasure trove of IP that Nintendo has to offer. Directors Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic (the duo behind Teen Titans Go!) string together Easter eggs and witty references in a quantity that rivals Steven Spielberg’s 2018 adventure Ready Player One; Mario eats at “Punch-Out Pizza,” an “antique store” in Toadstool Kingdom sells pixelated coins, Donkey Kong is introduced with the DK Rap, and a duel between DK and Mario is attended by a hoard of past Kongs. The Super Mario 64 eel, King Bomb-omb, Baby Luigi, and Rosalina’s blue Luma all make appearances. The film includes sequences that look like the old side-scroll Mario games and it even pays homage to the Mario Kart 64 Rainbow Road shortcut. The most ingenious element of The Super Mario Bros. Movie, however, is easily the score from Brian Tyler, which brilliantly ties in dozens of iconic sound cues from the games with ’80s chart toppers and fresh new music. For those with even a passing familiarity with Nintendo, watching the film is like cosplaying as the Leonardo DiCaprio pointing meme.
While the references are sure to charm Nintendo lovers, and the standard Illumination-style cartoon humor will please youngsters, the film otherwise doesn’t have a ton to offer. Peach is pluckier and Bowser is a romantic with a penchant for piano ballads but there’s not much new or fresh in the way of story or animation. A weak theme of brotherhood and friendship pops up occasionally, like a soon-to-retreat Piranha Plant, the universe full of magical pipes is never fully explored, and Peach’s backstory is hinted at and then dropped (post-credit scenes suggesting a sequel may mean the writers are saving this for later). While the writing is chuckle-inducing and the voice acting is passable, neither necessitate a second playthrough (it’s no Mario Party 2).
Ultimately, Nintendo fans are sure to find the second Mario film (unlike the first) well worth a trip to the cinema, and with a runtime of only 92 minutes, it doesn’t overstay its welcome. But to swipe a metaphor from the original NES Super Mario Bros. game, while the film may complete the level, it doesn’t quite nail the leap to the top of the flagpole.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie opens in theaters nationwide on April 5