It’s not that I’m asking for too much from The Super Mario Bros. Movie, the latest from Minions masters Illumination. It’s that in the distant shadow of 2014’s The Lego Movie, another merch-driven animated movie starring Chris Pratt, and other profoundly impressive family films, it’s not impossible for Super Mario to glimmer like a Super Star. But despite its own best efforts to tap into Gen-X nostalgia, The Super Mario Bros. Movie doesn’t seize on its full potential.
With a pixel-thin premise and a plot propelled by a candy-induced sugar rush, The Super Mario Bros. is an overstuffed 90 minutes of colorful, inoffensive fun that doesn’t explore the vast Mushroom Kingdom so much as it tirelessly side-scrolls through it. Directors Michael Jelenic and Aaron Horvath, with a script by Matthew Fogel, replicate the limited scope of Nintendo’s ‘80s classics as they leave behind the sly mischief of their overlooked Teen Titans Go! to the Movies for something far more functional and uninspired.
Does Mario have pathos? The Super Mario Bros. Movie begins by looking to excavate meaningful depth in Nintendo’s mustached mascot, who in the games is cursed by the Sisyphean task of rescuing kidnapped princesses. The decidedly not-Italian, not-from-New York Chris Pratt lends his voice to the Brooklyn plumber, who with his brother Luigi (Charlie Day) have just started a new business.
Desperate to make a name and a buck, Mario and Luigi discover an underground system that plunges them into another realm: The Mushroom Kingdom, ruled by the beautiful Princess Peach (the ethereal Anya Taylor-Joy). Her domain is targeted by the evil Bowser (a glorious Jack Black), whose desperation to wed Peach is absurdly and comically potent with an incel’s desperation. With Luigi kidnapped (and not Peach — hey, a twist!), Mario teams with Peach to forge an alliance with Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen) and save this inexplicably bizarre world.
When Super Mario Bros. was released in Japan in 1985 and the U.S. in 1987, it became the calling card for Shigeru Miyamoto, the celebrated game designer whose vision is likened to figures like Walt Disney and Stan Lee. Like Mario, Miyamoto was unwittingly on a rescue mission to save video games shortly after widespread capitalist hubris collapsed the industry. The elegant simplicity of its gameplay, combined with wholesome nonsense, turned Super Mario Bros. into a cultural touchstone and Nintendo into a giant whose name is practically synonymous with video games itself.
All this to say: There is misplaced effort and irony in searching for logic in the Mario Bros. universe. The brand has held together for over 40 years by the suspension of its audience’s eternal disbelief, that a five-foot-one plumber can jump and pound — or race cars, or play tennis — his way to victory against a fire-breathing kaiju turtle. But while audiences and even less-cynical critics maybe won’t demand much depth, the filmmakers of The Super Mario Bros. Movie seemingly want to. And in that regard, the movie fails to find anything worthwhile to say.
Directors Jelenic and Horvath position Mario as a determined small business owner not driven to greatness, but stability. (I dread to speculate who Mario votes for in his local elections.) He’s an individual whose main personality is that he’s cursed by low expectations to succeed, even from those who theoretically should (and do) love him. In a meta way, The Super Mario Bros. Movie gazes into the mirror, as an IP franchise-starter in which only those directly invested in it can hope to touch the stars. For everyone else (especially those who remember 1993), the expectations are in the sewers.
So, does The Super Mario Bros. Movie surpass said expectations? It doesn’t, but it at least meets them halfway. The film moves forward on the bare minimum of structure, and chooses to make up for its shortcomings with an overabundance of reverent Easter eggs and worn ‘80s pop needle drops. It traffics hard in cuteness, as a defense against worthwhile criticism: A particularly nihilistic ghostly star is a reliable dispenser of quotable one-liners, and Toad — a faithful and joyful servant voiced by a most-committed Keegan Michael-Key — manages to outshine both Mario and Peach, whose A-listers are woefully on cruise control. But cuteness so often substitutes for substance here that when the plot finally tries to swerve towards emotional catharsis — specifically in a strangely truncated second act heart-to-heart between rivals Mario and Donkey Kong — it lands with a thud.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie isn’t a capital-B bad movie, to be clear. There’s a heart beating inside somewhere, a heart that champions the gorilla strength of brotherly bonds and how pettiness can be a great motivator. It’s often beautiful just to look at too, especially its seamless design fusions of Miyamoto’s singularly cartoonish imagination with high-fidelity realism. Behold, the radiant waterfalls and the worn denim of a plumber’s overalls. But its limited purpose — to entertain birthday parties and aging ‘80s babies with hazy memories of unwrapping the NES on Christmas morning — keeps the movie from getting the one-up over the competition. Maybe blow on it and try again.