A Land of Monsters and Mushrooms

The Super Mario Bros. Movie

Famously, NintendoSince 1983 (with the release of the Famicom gaming system in Japan), Nintendo has proven to be a gaming company dedicated to finding what gamers want, even when the gamers don't know it themselves. From dual-screen systems, to motion controls, to convertible home console/portable consoles, Nintendo regularly proves that the weirdest innovation is exactly what the gaming community needs. was not happy with how the 1993 Super Mario Bros. movie turned out. Nor should they have been. That was a massive train wreck of a film, a movie that changed so much of the lore to fit... who knows what? The idea that audiences wouldn't accept a bright and colorful movie about plumbers that jumped on mushrooms and fought a giant dinosaur? Sure, the film came out the same year as the original Jurassic Park, and that was a movie that redefined how to showcase dinosaurs on the big screen. But even without Spielberg's dino opus out in theaters, Super Mario Bros. would have been rejected by audiences. It was a bad movie.

After that failure (with the movie making only $38.9 Mil against a $48 Mil budget, a resounding bomb despite how huge the Super Mario SeriesHe's the world's most famous plumber and the biggest face in Nintendo's stable, a character so ubiquitous you already knew we were talking about Mario even before we said his name. already was), Nintendo took their rights back and refused to let anyone play with their cinematic toys. They found some success with cartoons on TV, but by and large they didn't want to share their license out unless they had strong control over the final product. It wasn't until the 2020s that anyone was able to convince Nintendo to make another attempt in the cinemascape. And, for some reason, Nintendo decided to partner with Illumination to do it.

From the outset of the announcement, this film had a few strikes against it. Illumination is a company best know for its Despicable Me franchise and, well, the Minions. They make largely inoffensive fare that, frankly, doesn't hold an artistic candle to the best in animation (those greats produced by Disney, Pixar, and occasionally Dreamworks). That's not to say all their films are bad (Despicable Me has five films under its belt, so clearly someone likes those movies) but they also aren't really the best that animation has to offer. They're bright, they're silly, the films are populated with stars who you know by name (even if they aren't known for their voice work), and the scenes are generally filled with needle drops (song selections) that are meant to make people go, "hey, I know that song," over actually fitting the mood of the movie. They make mild, kid friendly films, and that's both their asset and the biggest knock against them.

The announcement of the movie brought a lot of divisive opinions from the Internet, especially over the choice of lead actor Chris Pratt as the voice of Mario. Pratt is, well, Pratt. Some like him and some hate him, but he's not known for his voice work. Hell, he's hardly known for good acting at this point, having turned in a string of middling performances after striking it big in the one-two punch of Parks and Recreation and Guardians of the Galaxy. There's a noticeable downturn in the characters he plays, and his own performances, from about Passengers onwards, and even when those films prove successful (such as all the Jurassic World movies), most of the time Pratt feels like an awkward (or even dull) fit for the movie.

Bear in mind, I say all this knowing that the 2023 The Super Mario Bros. Movie has currently made $1.347 Bil at the Box Office, could still bring in a few million more in ticket sales, and that doesn't even account for home video sales, VOD rentals, toys sales, and any cross-connected boosts in game sales that Nintendo has seen because of the film. Financially this was a massive success, and people clearly loved the film. For me, though, this film feels like a culmination of all the aspects I outlined above: an Illumination film, with all their hallmarks, headlined by the world's currently least interesting bankable leading man. It leads to an inoffensive, but brightly colored, film that, having watched it once, I doubt I'll bother sitting through it again.

In the film, Mario (Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day) have just started up their plumbing business in New York City, having left behind their jobs on the Wrecking Crew. They've poured all their savings into one commercial for their Super Mario Bros Plumbing business, with dreams of finally getting to be their own boss. One failed plumbing job, though, and the brothers have to regroup and figure out how to get their business off the ground. Thankfully, a water main burst causes a massive flood to pour into their area, and Mario gets the idea to go out and investigate. They could make a name for themselves and prove they're the plumbers that NYC needs and deserves.

But while exploring in the sewers to find the leak, Mario and Luigi stumble onto a massive, magical green pipe that sucks them into a whole new world. Luigi ends up in the territory of King Bowser (Jack Black), a huge reptile with dreams of conquering the whole world and, somehow, winning the heart of Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy). Meanwhile Mario winds up in the Mushroom Kingdom where, joined by the single bravest toad explorer, Captain Toad (Keegan-Michael Key), he goes to the castle of Princess Peach to plead for help in finding his brother. This sends the trio off on an adventure to find Luigi, defeat Bowser, and maybe save two whole worlds in the process.

On the plus side for Super Mario '23, this film is a loving homage to all things Mario. The film opens with little nods to old continuity, like a "Jumpman" arcade game (showing off Donkey Kong game play) to them working on the Wrecking Crew. Scenes borrow liberally from the design aesthetics of the Mario series, many characters from the main continuity show up, and it all feels like Nintendo and Illumination very specifically storyboarded out everything so that as much Mario could be crammed into this Mario movie as possible.

The downside is that, for as much as the film loves the look of Mario, it doesn't really understand great storytelling. The whole of the adventure is a very expected, very linear affair. Mario shows up, finds the princess (with minimal fuss), earns her trust (with minimal fuss), fights the Kongs to earn their trust (and manages to win despite having only just learned how to use the powers of this world via, of course, montage), and then goes on an expected journey to defeat Bowser. There are very few moments that feel truly creative or original. It's all just very basic.

And, at times, it can also be an awkward fit. To rally the their forces and have enough of an army to defeat Bowser, the crew has to go to the Jungle Kingdom of the Kongs. It's weird to have Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen) and his crew both be real characters here and an arcade game out in Mario's "real world". But weirder still is that the Kongs here are also the madcap racers of the kingdom. They have the "Mario Karts" at their disposal, and this leads to a big vehicular run through the Rainbow Road. You can understand why this is here -- the Mario Kart series is huge, and they wanted to nod towards it -- but it doesn't really make sense in the context of the characters or the movie as a whole. Plus, like so much of this film, the idea of these Karts is introduced only to get brushed aside a few scenes later, never to return again.

There is far too much of this, in fact, making the film feel like a disjointed collection of scenes along a linear path than a truly well thought out story. The Mushroom Kingdom is introduced but then, as soon as Mario learns the magic of the world, he, Princess, and Toad leave. This isn't our primary setting. The Jungle Kingdom is introduced, and then in the battle with Donkey Kong, Mario gains the cat suit and uses it to win the day. Then we leave the Jungle Kingdom, never to return and the cat suit is never mentioned again. The karts are introduced, but after just one battle, they're discarded (along with most of the Kong army) and never mentioned again. Everything here is done as a nod to the games, but they aren't given weight or meaning because the film tosses them around like a big batch of toys, carelessly forgetting about them the second some other new toy shows up.

One can imagine a series of movies that would more steadily build out each of these ideas into a more cohesive whole. The Toads versus the armies of Bowser could be a story on its own. The introduction of the rival Jungle Kingdom could have been its own movie. The idea of Karts (and vehicular racing) could have come from NYC in a sequel and them suddenly underground street racing changes the whole course of the Mushroom Kingdom. There are a ton of ideas that could have been pursued in a series of films, each one building their ideas out organically and leading to deeper ideas, and deeper meaning for all of these concepts. Instead, it all feels very shallow. It's not without love, as everything is very pretty and very colorful, but there's no substance to it.

And then there's the musical choices, which really make no sense. The Mario series has been around for 40 years at this point and it has more recognizable musical tracks in it than any decade, genre, or band has under their belt. You could populate a dozen films with tracks just chosen from the game series and it they would be filled with nothing but bangers. And yet, the most recognizable tracks, the ones given the most time in the film, are the pop hits used for montages. "No Sleep till Brooklyn" as Mario and Luigi work their way through NYC. "Holding Out for a Hero" as Mario learns the ropes of the Mushroom Kingdom. "Take On Me" as the trio travel, via Kart, through the Jungle Kingdom. "Thunderstruck" as they build their karts to go take on Bowser. "Mr. Blue Sky" once the day is saved and Mario and Luigi get to celebrate their new lives as heroes. Why use these songs when there would be plenty of great Mario tracks to use instead?

Well, because that's the Illumination way. Need a voice cast? Hire a bunch of big-name stars for the duty. Need to move the story forward? Do a montage at every turn. Have to score the film? Populate it with pop tracks so the little kids in the audience can dance (while the adults can say, "yep, I know that track"). It doesn't matter if these decisions make sense, it's just the Illumination formula and they followed it to the letter here. Instead of adapting themselves to the Mario series, they molded the most famous video game franchise in the world to the Illumination formula.

What surprises me most is that Nintendo went along with it. Illumination must have been really convincing, saying, "no no, we really need to do it this way to make the most money we can." And the Box Office is hard to argue with, although I do have to wonder if the film was successful because of Illumination's efforts or despite them. One might wonder if any Mario films released in 2023 that actually looked the part could have made of a Billion dollars on sheer name recognition alone. Could a better film have made $2 Bil? More? We'll never know because that wasn't the film we got. Instead we got the safe, artistically devoid, cookie-cutter Illumination effort, which is exactly what we all should have expected from the studio.

The movie isn't bad, it's just not good. It's inoffensive and will delight little kids over and over again. Plenty of adults could it enjoyable because, hell, it's Mario and everyone loves Mario. But is they a film that will have the kind of staying power you would expect after raking in so much money at the Box Office? I have my doubts. I watched it, I was amused, and then I wandered away. But I have no desire to see it again, and I don't expect to ever want to again. It was fine... and that was it.