The Super Mario Bros. Movie Gives the People What They Want

Your best bet is to not ask too many questions and just go with the magic-mushroom flow.

Mario and his friends race on go-karts in 'The Super Mario Bros. Movie'
Nintendo / Illumination Entertainment & Universal

Hollywood’s previous attempt at a Super Mario Bros. film tried to translate the cartoon goofiness of Nintendo’s video game into something more cinematic. The result was strange and ambitious: A British character actor took the title role; Bowser was transformed from a fire-breathing turtle into a slick-haired industrialist, and the world he ruled was filled not with power-up mushrooms but with industrial catwalks and dripping slime. The film is a fascinating failure but a failure nevertheless, a baffling effort to plumb deeper into the tale of, well, a pair of heroic plumbers.

The new Super Mario Bros. Movie has zero such curveballs. It is cheerfully animated and deeply committed to a world that audiences might recall from playing any one of the franchise’s games over the past 30-plus years. The film comes from Illumination, the animation studio that has long pumped out movies featuring the Minions, those cute canary-yellow imbeciles who are chemically designed to delight children. The Super Mario Bros. Movie, out Friday, is no different. It’s a 92-minute injection of kid-friendly joy that whizzes by fast enough to keep adults from getting enraged or bored.

I am not a Mario skeptic. I’ve been playing the games for as long as I’ve known how to work my opposable thumbs, and I’m not above being pandered to. I was happily surprised by the appearance of Kamek, a bespectacled turtle-wizard that is hardly among the games’ A-list ensemble. I got goosebumps at a couple of cues in the soundtrack that pull from the legendary Koji Kondo’s original theme music. When Mario donned his famous raccoonlike Tanooki Suit in one crucial action sequence, I let out an involuntary yelp of glee.

But my role here is less to count off nerdy references for elder Millennials like myself and more to evaluate this film on its own terms. The directors, Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic, are best known for their zippy, satirical work on Teen Titans Go!. Here, however, they seem focused on re-creating the fun of the original Mario rather than subverting it. The setup is simple: A sibling pair of Brooklyn plumbers, Mario (voiced by Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day), get sucked into a magic pipe to the Mushroom Kingdom, where the diplomatic Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy) recruits them into a grand battle against Bowser (Jack Black), the king of the turtle-adjacent Koopas.

In this fantasyland, you can punch a question block and consume what emerges; it’ll make you big and strong. The red flowers help you throw fire, the brown leaves turn you into a raccoon, gold coins hover everywhere, and the architectural style is heavy on floating platforms. Why does Peach, a human woman, govern a kingdom of toadstool-headed children? Nobody really knows, and it doesn’t matter. Why is Bowser, a 10-foot-tall fire-breathing monster, so intent on marrying Peach that he’s willing to go to war to make it happen? Because that’s what Bowser does. Stop asking questions!

The script, by Matthew Fogel, assumes that the audience already understands the rules of the Mario world and provides only the barest context for the poor newcomers who might not. Mario himself is at first an outsider, as perplexed as the next guy, but he picks up the physics of the universe pretty quickly: Eat mushrooms, jump high, land on turtles’ heads, repeat. On a side quest, he and Peach visit the Jungle Kingdom to try to get help from the Kong family, recruiting the upbeat but aggro Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen) to their cause. At another point, everyone participates in a big go-kart race simply because that’s another thing Mario does in the games.

The narrative provides just the loosest nudges from scene to scene, and the colorful animation renders every set piece with polish. Pratt, an odd choice to play an outsized Italian American stereotype, hardly speaks after the first act of the film once the plot gets consumed by heady action. Black gets to do more as Bowser, singing emotional rock ballads and grousing over romantic rejection with his characteristic dorky rage. But almost every other part of the movie makes clear that the studio wanted the filmmakers to avoid straying too far from the hallowed source material.

The movie doesn’t dare uncover something profound about the main character or even question the ridiculous video-game logic of the wider world around Mario. The intellectual property has become intimidating, too profitable to warrant risk-taking—so instead, audiences are served an appetizing confection. But kids do love candy, and I’m sure that around the world, they’ll have just one command for their ticket-buying parents: “Let’s-a go!”