This one’s for my parents, who bought my sisters and me our first Nintendo, which is still in full operating status at my middle sister’s house in Reston, VA.
If you’ve been around as long as I have, you’ll know all about the Nintendo game “Super Mario Bros.”; its many sequels across many different Nintendo/Famicom consoles; the kid’s TV show (with Danny Wells and “Captain” Lou Albano – RIP, good sirs); and the 1993 film starring Bob Hoskins, John Leguizamo, and Samantha Mathis. You might even remember the commercial sung to the tune of the “Super Mario Bros.” Level 1-2 underworld – “Nin-ten-do / it’s for breakfast now / Nin-ten-do / It’s a cereal, wow!”
All of this came roaring back to mind after the studio logos blew by and The Super Mario Bros. Movie started rolling its cold open, featuring a larger-than-life King Bowser (Jack Black) intent on conquering the Ice World. Oh, yes, The Super Mario Bros. Movie is here to push every nostalgia button with thrillingly carefree abandon and make you grin as it does so. References to every iteration of the game and its spinoffs fly past, even so far as to allow Mario (Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day) to discover the Warp Pipe to the Mushroom Kingdom after having fixed a bathroom drain (a nod to the aforementioned TV show).
I’ll be frank with you: It works blindingly. From Koji Kondo’s 8-bit “Super Mario Bros.” theme that comes in over the Nintendo logo at the film’s start (not to mention his other game music fleshed out with orchestral muscle) to the various sound effects and gameplay actions (they even have Mario running the way he does in “Super Mario World,” fer chrissakes), this film is a celebration of everything we love about the game, its various worlds, and its history. Screenwriter Matthew Fogel approaches this game series adaptation with obvious love for its source, never once turning to the dreaded “children’s movie butt humor” or similar vacuous trifle that plagues modern animation films.
Instead, Fogel has penned a worthy and rousing “save the kingdom” adventure, but not at Princess Peach’s (Anya Taylor-Joy) expense; here, she’s presented as a benevolent ruler who’s not afraid to take charge and lead. And when Mario loses Luigi during their Warp to the Mushroom Kingdom, she uses genuine compassion and smarts to get Mario up to speed (literally) to prepare him for the upcoming battle against Bowser, who’s obtained the Super Star and wants to use it to conquer every kingdom in his path. Luigi’s the damsel in distress this time out, stuck in a dungeon with Bowser’s various prisoners from his ravaging, including a Luma (voiced by co-director Michael Jelenic’s daughter Juliet) whose childlike voice hilariously contrasts the morbidly existential bon mots slipping out of her mouth.
Jelenic and co-director Aaron Horvath gleefully bounce us into confrontation after confrontation at a breakneck pace, keeping up with the spirit of the game; I wouldn’t be surprised if a further analysis showed that Jelenic and Horvath timed some scenes or sequences to last the requisite 300 seconds required by some levels of “Super Mario Bros.” This pacing, however, doesn’t stop us from appreciating the photorealistic animation painstakingly delivered by this film’s animators. Shading, light refraction, textures, and gobs and gobs of color combine to make this film almost impossibly tactile, a marked step above the majority of other contemporary animated features.
More respect and love for the game’s origins are shown through the enthusiastic voice performances. The main foursome – Chris Pratt, Anya Taylor-Joy, Charlie Day, and Keegan-Michael Key as an overly-gung-ho Toad – are outstanding in their roles, carefully staying within certain boundaries, but not being too careful as to sound intimidated. Fellow cast members Jack Black and Seth Rogen (as Donkey Kong) are likewise a delight to hear; some may say they’re just doing what they do (especially Black’s singing, where his voice is readily apparent through all the digital processing), but this is a film that plays to their strengths, putting their established personae to good use.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie is raucous, action-packed, and an absolute triumph. It’s also thankfully short; there’s sage-like wisdom displayed by Horvath and Jelenic in not letting this popping spectacle overtire its audience. Powered by lots of visual whizbangery and bombastic sound (if you crank this one up on your home theater system, you will make the neighbors down the street wet the bed), this film moves fast and entertains so well that by the time we have a small chance to breathe, we’re starting the third act. We’re in a constant state of motion and your eyes have to move rapidly to catch little in-jokes and references, which might feel fatiguing, but you won’t feel like that for long. The film graciously ends on its own terms (stick around for a post-credits scene), which include earning smiles from longtime fans and new audiences alike.