By Paige Cornell[Warning: Review includes spoilers.]
When Mario first appeared in a 1981 arcade game alongside Donkey Kong, he was simply known as ‘Jump Man’. The video game character being the face of a franchise seemed to be a mere glimmer of hope then. However, in 2023 he is now the star of his first animated feature film outing, showcasing the impact and legacy that Mario has been to his legions of fans over the years.
Illumination and Nintendo Studios collaborated together to produce ‘The Super Mario Bros. Movie’. Illumination is no stranger to the world of animation, having produced the ‘Despicable Me’, ‘Sing’ and ‘The Secret Life of Pets’ film franchises. Their design and artwork remains engaging and fun to watch, but this time it is clear that the movie has its own Nintendo thematic charm etched in each frame.
The movie starts us off in Brooklyn, New York, where fans learn the origins of Mario and Luigi. While stereotypical Italian jargon and lifestyle is abundant: “Mamma Mia” is said in the movie more times than it should while Mario and Luigi’s family is seen eating pasta for dinner, we also see that Mario is not the reigning star in his family tree. His father comments that he is wrecking his brother Luigi’s own chances at success with his dreams of being a plumber. This dynamic of their relationship creates a new layer to Mario fans have not known before.
During their first plumbing job, things go awry. A dog owned by the client’s goes after the brothers after Luigi steps on his dog bone, and they barely escape from the wreckage. Feeling defeated, Mario learns of a pipe leak while watching the news. Determined to fix the reputation of their business, Mario and Luigi are ready to solve the problem to be hailed city heroes. However, they wind up entering a Warp Pipe during the project, kicking the film’s adventure into high gear.
However, nothing goes according to plan. Mario and Luigi are soon separated and unfortunately, they are separated for most of the movie. It would have been nice to have the two connected throughout, but the adventure mainly shines on Mario with the occasional cut-backs to Luigi. Viewers soon discover that Bowser (Jack Black) wants to marry Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy) and decides to capture his brother to weaken Mario and distract him from Peach. Yet the two end up working together, causing Bowser’s plan to fail.
In the video games, Peach has been depicted as a princess who constantly needs saving by a man. So it was a nice change of pace to see that this time, she is the one doing the saving. Peach introduces Mario to Toad (Keegan Michael-Key) who has some funny one-liners and often insists that he and Mario are best friends from the start, recognizing his greatness early on. Peach decides to unite their trio with the Kong’s, a group of apes that is led by King Cranky Kong (Fred Armisen). But he only agrees to help on the condition that Mario defeats his son Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen) in a fight reminiscent of a ‘Super Smash Bros’ match. This leads to an unlikely friendship between the two through commonalities of feeling like they are disappointing their parents.
Having won the match, the gang takes a ‘Mario Kart’ detour through the famous Rainbow Road to meet with Bowser at his castle to rescue Luigi. A blue shell causes the drive to the castle to make a pit stop, with Mario and Donkey Kong plummeting to the ocean beneath the course and the Kong army being taken by Bowser’s troops. Peach and Toad quickly hurry back to the Mushroom Kingdom to urge everyone to evacuate. This leads to a funny scene of Toad and his friends determining what is valuable to keep with them from the Mushroom Kingdom. Bowser is able to propose to Peach, who is coerced into accepting when he threatens Toad.
Jack Black’s comedic talent shines through in his portrayal of Bowser as a man who desperately wants to be loved and not seen as the ferocious beast he truly is. Black singing “Peaches” was a particular highlight of the movie, which helped show a vulnerability to Bowser that players had never seen before.
Mario and Donkey Kong are able to escape the ocean using a rocket from Donkey Kong’s kart, while Toad hides an Ice Flower in Peach’s bouquet, allowing her to stop the wedding just as Bowser is about to drown the prisoners in lava for Peach. The movie ends with Mario and Luigi reuniting, preventing destruction of Brooklyn and shrinking Bowser so he can no longer hurt them.
Hopefully in a potential sequel, Nintendo decides to delve deeper into the world of Mario than the scratching-the-surface plot they chose for their debut. While the video games were never that dense in plot, movies allow for more storytelling in a way that videogames may not have the time to. Also, not all the leading characters of the Mushroom Kingdom were included, it would have been nice to see Yoshi more (even though there is a hint of the second film being centered around him) along with Daisy, Wario and Waluigi.
Ultimately, the film is a nice way to introduce newcomers to the world of Mushroom Kingdom while also supplying plenty of Easter eggs for fans of the video games (the score of the Mario games underlying the movie was a fantastic touch).