In 1993, the Super Mario Bros. made their big-screen debut through a live-action adventure starring Bob Hoskins, John Leguizamo, and Dennis Hopper. While that film has garnered a cult following in the decades since its theatrical release, it does little to truly pay homage to Nintendo’s flagship franchise in the ways all the best film adaptations aspire. Fast forward 30 years, and Universal, Illumination, and Nintendo have finally delivered a cinematic adventure starring the iconic fraternal duo that is joyful, fun, exciting, and, perhaps most importantly, respectful of the source material.
Warning: While I try to remain as spoiler-free as possible, certain elements of the narrative and characters are mentioned throughout this article.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie toes a difficult line, balancing an origin story with the actual meat of a meaningful adventure. Mario and his brother Luigi are plumbers in Brooklyn when they get sucked into a mysterious pipe and arrive in the Mushroom Kingdom. Meanwhile, Bowser has begun his conquest en route to Princess Peach’s castle. The setup is obvious and has certainly been done before, but it effectively sets the stage for the subsequent thrill ride of an adventure.
As soon as Mario and Luigi arrive in the Mushroom Kingdom, the adventure progresses with near-flawless pacing. Though a few areas stick out as moments where the story pumps the brakes, it moves forward before it comes to a screeching halt and drags. Fun action sequences consistently give way to major setpiece moments, which in turn often set up fun gags. The 92-minute runtime flew by, and while I was surprised to have already arrived at the final confrontation, I love that the film doesn’t overstay its welcome.
Whether you’re talking the conversational moments, like when Mario and Toad are walking through the marketplace at the foot of Peach’s Castle, or something like the big Mario Kart action sequence, The Super Mario Bros. Movie is visually stunning. It’s bright, colorful, and absolutely gorgeous. Every scene is a visual treat, living up to Illumination’s pedigree. The characters are expressive, the environments are intricate, and the action is always well-framed.
From the moment the movie starts, it constantly throws references to the Mario franchise at the audience. The references range from core games all the way up to newer titles like Bowser’s Fury. Even the spin-off games, Donkey Kong titles, and other Mario media get some love. Many of the references are obvious, but a few of them either demonstrate the value of Nintendo’s involvement or a writing team with an outstanding understanding of the Mario fan base. One reference, in particular, made me gasp in surprise when it happened.
The references come at such a machine-gun pace that they can, at times, overwhelm (much like the standard cadence of the jokes), but I absolutely loved keeping my eyes peeled and scanning every scene for nods and references to the past. Many of the references aren’t even things you spot, but rather listen for; the music and sound effects pull from every single era of Mario’s past, creating a nostalgic delight – even if I lost count of the number of times I heard a rendition of the Overworld Theme from the original Super Mario Bros.
Easily the most headline-grabbing aspect of the film in the lead-up to its release was the voice cast. Seth Rogen and Jack Black are cast perfectly as Donkey Kong and Bowser respectively, and Anya Taylor-Joy and Keegan Michael-Key deliver fantastic performances as Peach and Toad. Chris Pratt and Charlie Day, who provide the voices of Mario and Luigi, take the longest to get used to, thanks in large part to the fact that they sound so different from the iconic voices provided by Charles Martinet in the games. However, Pratt’s range and comedic timing perfectly capture the journey Mario goes on (and the gags that happen along the way), while Day’s trademark frantic line delivery matches Luigi’s panicky disposition. By the time the credits rolled, I had adjusted to the point that I simply heard Mario and Luigi, not Chris Pratt and Charlie Day.
Though the references and humor can be a tad thick at times, the highs elevate the experience to the point that any gripes I have would be minor nitpicks in the broad picture. In recent years, the stigma of video game movies being bad by default has faded considerably, but The Super Mario Bros. Movie may be the new poster child for this first golden age of silver-screen game adaptations. The Super Mario Bros. Movie delivers all the thrills of a great Mario game, and in the process, creates the best video game movie yet.