Since 1993, Hollywood has produced about 50 big-budget video game movie adaptations. And as a lifelong gamer, I’ll be the first to admit most of them suck.
Even the video game movies that do well at the box office (Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time) fail to capture that “special something” that made the games worth adapting.
Hollywood’s ability to screw up can’t-miss video game adaptations knows no bounds. The 1994 Street Fighter movie didn’t bother to include any actual street fights.
But the 1993 Super Mario Bros. movie is hands down the genre’s worst offender. The folks behind the 1993 film took the joyful world of Super Mario Bros. and transformed it into a gritty dystopian hellscape. Super Mario Bros. was a commercial and critical failure that lowered expectations for every video game movie that followed.
And now, right when Hollywood is finally starting to produce video game movies worth seeing, along comes The Super Mario Bros. Movie, which looks like a pixel-perfect recreation of the classic Mario games. So is The Super Mario Bros. Movie the Mario movie gamers have craved for decades, or another soulless cash grab preying on the series’ loyal fan base?
Co-directors Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic’s The Super Mario Bros. Movie stars Chris Pratt and Charlie Day as Brooklyn’s finest plumbers, Mario and Luigi. When the film begins, the brothers quit their day jobs to launch their own plumbing company. They have no experience running a business and zero clients, but they won’t let that stand in the way of chasing their dreams.
One fateful night while out on a job, Mario and Luigi stumble through a magical pipe that warps them into another world called the Mushroom Kingdom, a strange fantasyland inhabited by a friendly race of mushroom people.
An evil warlord named Bowser (Jack Black) wants to take over the realm, and marry the mushroom people’s ruler, Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy). Being an evil tyrant and all, Bowser captures Luigi and threatens to crush anyone who stands in his way.
Before he can return home, Mario joins forces with Princess Peach and a plucky little side-kick named Toad (Keegan-Michael Key) to rescue his brother and end Bowser’s reign of terror.
Let’s get this out of the way. From top to bottom, the film’s cast does a solid job embodying these iconic characters. I’ve been playing Mario games since the ‘80s, and the cast mostly sounds like I always imagined these characters speaking.
When the movie’s trailer first dropped, fans lost their minds because Mario didn’t sound like a borderline offensive Italian caricature (as he’s portrayed in the later games). I won’t spoil how, but the film addresses Mario’s over-the-top accent early on, and I’m more than fine with this decision.
The Mario I grew up with was always a gruff-sounding Brooklynite. In fact, it was the 1996 game Super Mario 64 that popularized the idea Mario sounded like your dad’s impression of Chef Boyardee. Don’t believe me? See the proof here and here.
I got a kick out of Day’s skittish take on Luigi, who is every bit the beta to his take-charge older brother. I wish the film expanded on this dynamic, treating Luigi like Ringo Starr to the heroic Mario’s Paul McCartney.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie clocks in at a tight 90 minutes, and as much as I enjoyed the film, it could use some more meat on its bones. Horvath and Jelenic borrow from the J.J. Abrams school of filmmaking, where there’s always a lot going on, but nothing meaningful happens.
The film is jam-packed with action and adventure but light on character and oddly enough, world-building. The movie jumps from one thrilling setpiece to the next, hoping you don’t realize how thinly-sketched the characters are.
If you’ve never played a Super Mario Bros. game keeping up with everything the film throws at you will require some Wikipedia deep dives. Even though the film introduces lots of colourful characters and fantastic locations, it barely establishes who these characters are and how they fit into this world.
Mario begins the movie as a courageous do-gooder with a heart of gold and ends the movie as a courageous do-gooder with a heart of gold. He’s never forced to overcome the crippling self-doubts that all legendary heroes struggle to overcome — it’s like Rocky starting the movie with the confidence of a guy who already knocked out the world champ.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie avoids most of the pitfalls that ruined its 1993 predecessor. Whereas Super Mario Bros. went out of its way to distance itself from its whimsical video game origins, this movie is a beat-for-beat recreation of the popular games. In fact, The Super Mario Bros. Movie clings so close to the games’ look and feel that its lack of originality took me out of the experience.
Tony Soprano once called “remember when,” the lowest form of conversation. And so much of this movie is just a callback to Mario games. I love that this movie celebrates classic games like Punch-Out!!, Donkey Kong, and Mario Kart, but I need it to do more than play like a highlight reel of Nintendo’s greatest hits.
The problem here is how film adaptations handle translating video game mythology versus video game mechanics.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie stays faithful to the source material by honoring gameplay mechanics from beloved Mario games. So viewers watch Mario do lot’s of leaping between platforms, smashing bricks, and consuming mushroom power-ups.
But the ultimate Mario movie will place just as much emphasis on the series’ mythology — exploring the characters, their world, and its history. I want these films to remain true to the games while also building on the source material in inventive ways. Think Battlestar Galactica, Freaky, and It Chapters 1 and 2.
Why do I need to sit through a ten-minute Mario Kart-inspired action sequence when I have more fun playing Mario Kart on my couch? If they want to stand out, these adaptations must spice up their successful recipes with delicious new ingredients.
I’m being hard on this film because it comes so close to delivering the Mario story I’ve waited my entire life to see. The Super Mario Bros. Movie is a fun time at the multiplex for fans and newbies alike. But a fun time at the theatre is too low of a bar for a character of Mario’s stature.
This film has the right tools to make good on this cursed genre’s untapped potential. It’s funny, heart-warming, and bristling with charm. And also the front-runner for the year’s most gorgeous animated movie. But too often The Super Mario Bros. Movie comes across as a paint-by-numbers adaptation. It applies a proven formula to recreate a pixel-perfect reimagining lacking imagination.