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The Super Mario Bros. Movie review: It’s-a mess!

The Super Mario Bros Movie is an extremely detailed and colourful montage of nostalgia that sadly is so tightly shackled to its own IP that it never quite achieves great or even good film status.

From playing Super Mario World on the SNES at after-school care, to maintaining my social life through Animal Crossing: New Horizons in the COVID lockdowns, my path to adulthood has been bookended by Nintendo.

So, if at any point during this review you find yourself doubting my level of knowledge for one of the biggest brands in gaming, rest assured that I am 100% a Nintendo freak, and I have the receipts to prove it.

Let’s jump straight to it then: The Super Mario Bros. Movie is bad. For a flick with tonnes of colour, an upbeat soundtrack, and plenty of eye-catching action, it’s odd that there was genuinely not one moment that made me excited. And I should be well within its target demographic! But alas, its shallow gimmicks and lack of comprehensible storyline left me wanting.

The premise will not be unfamiliar to regular Mario players: the beautiful Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy) is under threat from spikey turtle man Bowser (Jack Black), and only a vertically challenged Italian plumber (Chris Pratt) can save her, for some reason. Why? Well, this movie finally answers that question with: who cares?

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Losing the plot

If you’re worried about plot spoilers, fear not – in fact, there’s really not that much of a plot to spoil. Each following sequence is more gamified than the last – with actions that lead to very typical ‘next level’ opportunities, instead of consequences characters must accept or overcome, which should be the number one defining quality of a story. I can’t believe I have to type that.

And now I have to get some game puns out of the way. The plot is Paper Mario thin! It didn’t spread any Sunshine! People across the Galaxy will be disappointed! Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze! Where was I?

With the exception of some quality voicework from Charlie Day as Luigi, Seth Rogen as Donkey Kong, and Jack Black as Bowser (and who wouldn’t like that?), there is very little to like about this film. With a plot as Mario Paint-by-numbers as this (that’s the last one, I promise), I’m surprised it made it past the test screenings.

A smattering of interest has to be dedicated to Princess Peach and the attempted do-over of her much-maligned character. Instead of being the helpless damsel in distress, she’s now a powerful leader of the Mushroom Kingdom, with a barely detectable backstory. And she recruits Mario to help her fight Bowser, the evil creature that wants to marry her, because … he can jump? I don’t really know. It’s all very reminiscent of Trinity training Neo in The Matrix, but with more girlboss second-wave feminism.

She’s got a motorcycle jumpsuit, don’t mess with her! Image: Universal Pictures

If you’ve been keeping an eye on the animated film offerings over the past few years (Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse, Ralph Breaks the Internet), you’ll be surprised at how much this one bucks the trend of having stories that appeal to both adults and children.

The sanitised veneer of The Super Mario Bros. Movie is depressingly blatant, with not a ‘damn’ or a ‘butt’ to be heard. There are no sly jokes meant to fly over kids heads; no quippy asides typical of a Disney/Pixar vehicle. It’s perfectly safe and conservative. Has a movie so obviously crafted itself for both censorship-loving Western mums AND the Chinese market?

IP freely?

I truly believe magic could have been made here. The directors, Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic, are responsible for some not-terrible animated offerings (Teen Titans: Go!), and had it gone the way of Lego Movie – with a solid bit of self-awareness – it could have been a passable chunk of entertainment. Instead, the product we get only serves to solidify how strict Nintendo are with their intellectual property and its accompanying lore.

That lore – the one that demands that green pipes are transportation devices and red mushrooms make you giant just because – absolutely cannot change, nor can the look of the characters or the items they interact with. Mario and his brother Luigi are neatly polished facsimiles of their game counterparts. Game logic carries over unquestioned into the film, to its further detriment.

(from left) Mario (Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day) in Nintendo and Illumination’s The Super Mario Bros. Movie, directed by Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic.

When Luigi and Mario, the ‘Super Mario Bros’, get their first plumbing job – fixing the bathroom of a fancy apartment – it leads to a sequence more reminiscent of bad mobile game ads than a Mario game. They turn the sink faucet, and the water fills up the shower. They turn it the other way, and the sink explodes. They plug the tap up and the tiles start popping out of the floor. I can feel my thumbs getting ready to press the ‘B’ button.

Where is Waluigi?

There are plenty of Easter Eggs in this film for eagle-eyed fans to spot. Visual and sonic references, like musical motifs from Mario Kart and Donkey Kong Country, and an arcade game loaded up with Jump Man, play out like a ‘collect-em-all’ game of hide and seek. Charles Martinet, the original voice artist for Mario and Luigi, also features in a cameo role which will certainly make some fanboys happy.

And then there are the omissions. Nintendo stalwarts such as Wario, Waluigi, Rosalina, Princess Daisy and even Yoshi (aside from a brief establishing shot) are nowhere to be found. Waaaaaaa?

Okay, maybe those characters aren’t as recognisable – but therein lies the problem. If your movie relies solely on audience recognition of its characters and their established traits, it’s not actually a movie – it’s a primetime clipshow.

But hey, if you’ve ever lied awake at night wondering how many individual threads there are in Mario’s monogrammed cap, then this is definitely the film for you.

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 10, 12…Image: Universal Pictures

I keep thinking of what might have gone down in the writers’ room of this movie. I imagine a young hopeful, just starting out in Hollywood. They open a laptop and begin plotting out an interesting, fresh take on Mario’s journey, with plenty of heart and humour, when suddenly the begloved grip of Master Hand closes around their laptop and crushes it to tiny pieces.

Pew Pew. Image: Super Smash Bros., Nintendo.

Anyway, take the kids in your life to see it if you must. With any luck, it will keep them quiet for 90 minutes.

The Super Mario Bros. Movie is in cinemas nationwide from 6 April.

The Super Mario Bros. Movie
Directors: Aaron Horvath, Michael Jelenic
Writer: Matthew Fogel
Producers: Chris Meledandri, Shigeru Miyamoto
Distributor: Universal Pictures

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1 out of 5 stars

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Silvi Vann-Wall is a journalist, podcaster, and filmmaker. They joined ScreenHub as Film Content Lead in 2022. Twitter: @SilviReports