Gamers, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but Chris Pratt does a great job as Mario in The Super Mario Bros. Movie. So does the rest of the cast in this animated family adventure film. It takes characters and ideas from many games from across the Mario canon, and turns it into an energetic romp that never gets boring. We’re deep in an era where video game adaptions are finally reliably good. The Super Mario Bros. Movie goes one step further, presenting a new way to adapt games to non-interactive media without having to hide the fact that they’re games at all.
The reason behind Mario’s controversial new voice is the first thing explained in the film. Mario and Luigi are working class plumbers trying to start a new business in their hometown of Brooklyn. They put on exaggerated Italian accents (wahoo!) in their commercial for marketing purposes, but really, they’re both Brooklyn Italians. We get to meet their family – all gentle jabs at various New York Italian stereotypes – before a series of events separates the brothers and spirits Mario away to the Mushroom Kingdom.
Pratt – again, I’m sorry – is fantastic as Movie Mario. He’s confident and thinks well on his feet but he’s sad that nobody believes in him. Similarly, Charlie Day nails Luigi’s cautious nature, and his willingness to follow Mario anywhere. Some of the film’s best scenes are when the two of them are together. In true Italian fashion, the brothers aren’t afraid to talk their feelings out and say how much they love each other, to adorable effect.
The characters look identical to how they are in the games, but they all have more complex personalities, which makes sense. The Mario games are best known for having terrific level design, and the characters are largely mascots who exist to facilitate play. In the film, the characters are the focus, and the film smartly makes them unique and memorable. Mario isn’t the only playable character, so to speak.
“There are many departures from the source material, but that’s what a good adaptation should do.”
However, once Mario enters the Mushroom Kingdom, it becomes obvious that this isn’t just a movie inspired by video game characters, but level design as well. This is a world where floating platforms and question mark blocks which pop out mushrooms that give you powers are common everyday things to the Toads who live there, but are strange to newcomer Mario. Like any video game adaptation, the film has constant references and callbacks to the games, but since it continues to play with video game elements throughout, the movie makes callbacks to mechanics as well as characters. A lot of these references draw from the most popular Mario games at the moment, like Super Mario Odyssey and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, to name a couple. It’s a very smart way to write video game adaptations and is something future films and TV shows could learn from. Plus, this ethos leads the film through some amazing action sequences that I wish I could play in an actual game. Hopefully the film gives Nintendo ideas for future titles.
In the Mushroom Kingdom, Mario runs into Princess Peach, played by Anya Taylor-Joy. Peach begins a mission to travel the world to stop Bowser’s tyrannical empire, and Mario decides to tag along. Princess Peach, more than anyone else, is almost completely different from who we see in the games. She is fearless, assertive, and not afraid to launch headfirst into danger. She teaches Mario how to platform, and more than holds her own in the action-y bits. Peach is not a damsel in distress anymore. I imagine these choices with her interpretation were made at least partly so the film can better deal with the cringiest aspect of the modern Mario games, Peach’s relationship with Bowser.
The internet’s cool uncle Jack Black plays Bowser, turning him into a character best described as “Jack Black in Bowser cosplay,” which turns out to be a perfect fit. He’s loveable, hilarious, and has musical leanings. But Black’s Bowser also emphasizes how evil he is much more than the games do. His goal is to rule the world and marry Peach against her will. The games have never made it explicit, but the film says it outright: Bowser admits that he doesn’t care how Peach feels, even as she rejects him to his face. Alongside Keegan-Michael Key as Toad and Seth Rogen as Donkey Kong, the film tells a very traditional but extremely entertaining good vs evil story.
A downside to the film is that the overall narrative isn’t unique. It’s a standard adventure film that goes through the expected motions, but is redeemed by the characters themselves as well as the action sequences. There are many departures from the source material, but that’s what a good adaptation should do. There’s more than enough here to keep the fans warm and snuggly, including a post-credits scene hinting at where a sequel could go.
All in all, The Super Mario Bros. Movie is a successful adaptation of possibly the most well-known video game franchise ever. It makes these iconic characters feel brand new, in worlds that you feel like you’ve been in before, so it’s bound to be a good time for Mario veterans and newcomers alike.