Principal Cast : Chris Pratt, Anya Taylor-Joy, Charlie Day, Jack Black, Keegan-Michael Key, Seth Rogen, Fred Armisen, Sebastian Maniscalco, Kevin Michael Richardson, Charles Martinet, Jessica DiCicco, Rino Romano, John DiMaggio, Khary Payton, Scott Menville, Eric Bauza.
Synopsis: A plumber named Mario travels through an underground labyrinth with his brother Luigi, trying to save a captured princess.
If you’ve come to this review expecting some nuanced dissection of the cultural impact of the eponymous arcade, console and computer game franchise from which this delightfully animated film takes its genesis, you will be disappointed. Although the brothers Mario fell right into my generation of formative gaming popularity, I never fell into their thrall, leaving their incredible popularity and insatiably successful series of games the domain of others to enjoy. That’s not to say I wasn’t aware of Mario or Luigi, nor the vastly popular Donkey Kong, part of the Nintendo umbrella of games popularised in the 80’s and 90’s, before an ill-fated live-action adaptation cast a pall across the subgenre of feature films derived from a bonkers and financially lucrative pop-culture subculture. What it means to you, dear reader, is that I completely lack the nostalgic or generational attachment to these characters that has magically derived a billion-dollar box-office haul for the barrel-avoiding pastor of plumbing, and have approached watching The Super Mario Bros Movie as a relative novice to this world.
Together with Minions and How To Train Your Dragon studio Universal, Nintendo’s revamped feature adaptation of the popular gaming franchise is a brightly colours, energetic and at times wonderfully absurd animated adventure that perfectly captures the basic underlying story of the games, fleshes out the one-dimensional characters into multi-faceted cinematic creations, and delivers what one might cheekily suggest is full-fledged family friendly entertainment. I’ll be honest, a lot of the film’s copious Easter Eggs and in-jokes were likely lost on me, and at times I had the distinct impression that I should be whooping in delight at some of the references inferred on the screen, they’re So Obvious (to me, however, they weren’t), but despite my ignorance at the deeper mythology and expansive world-buiding transitioned onto the big screen from the small 8-bit legacy at hand, I still had a great time here.
The film’s premise sees New York plumbers Mario (voiced by current Mr Everywhere Chris Pratt) and brother Luigi (Charlie Day), a pair of startup plumbers struggling to find clients, sucked into a magical vortex to the magical Mushroom Kingdom, where Princess Peach (Anya Taylor Joy) rules over a society of brightly coloured and physics-defying sentient mushrooms, while the evil Koopa King, Bowser (Jack Black, sounding not really like Jack Black at all) hopes to marry her and rule their universe. Together with friendly mushroom Toad, and the youngest member of the nearby ruling Kong family of giant apes, Mario searches the kingdom for Luigi, who is lost and imprisoned deep inside one of Bowser’s lava-filled dungeons.
Despite an astoundingly nonsensical roster of characters, and a plot that struggles to escape the franchise’s platform-based game elements, the joy and enthusiasm within The Super Mario Bros Movie is both effortless and effective. Even folks like me with very limited understanding of what I’m watching can follow along, and either sit there blissfully unaware of the innumerable references and gags coming thick and fast, or taking it all in like a well-versed Donkey Kong devotee. Either way, the characters and breezy pacing make for thoroughly enjoyable viewing. Heck, the controversy of Chris Pratt, the least Italian sounding actor in Hollywood today, replacing original Mario voice actor Charles Martinet, fades into the background within moments of the film’s opening, with the vocal work in this film capturing the tone and sense of playfulness within the Mario Bros franchise surprisingly easily; it softens the blow somewhat to realise that Martinet has a small role in the film as Mario and Luigi’s father. Honestly, I don’t get so hung up on which Big Name Actors play voice parts in animated films because as long as the voice matches the character nobody will ever give a shit that it’s Chris Pratt – and let’s face it, the dude is one of the busiest in the industry at the moment, having also voiced animated characters in The Lego Movie, Pixar’s Onward and the soon-to-be-released remake of Garfield – although it continues to bother me that Hollywood studios seem to lack the understanding that the film’s primary demographic for these films, young kids, don’t care who’s doing the voice when the pretty pictures and jokes are the focal point.
The film’s frantic screenplay, easy-breezy plot and dynamite animation are on-point for audiences of all ages – adults can get some of the more cerebral chuckles, while the younger crowd will be swept up in the brightly-lit, supremely detailed animation that showcases just how far removed we are from the original Toy Story. The in-world references to parts of the long-running game series mostly went over my head, but the few I did manage to recognise I absolutely had some laughs, so if you’re like me and have never dipped a toe into playing Mario Cart or Donkey Kong you’ll still have a great time even if much of what’s going on makes no sense or feels like you’re missing most of the clever references. A bit like watching Avengers: Endgame if it was the first film in the MCU you’d ever seen. Solid, energetic, family-friendly antics don’t come more polished and pizazzed than this. The Super Mario Bros Movie is a hit.