Nintendo has always been a treasure trove of untapped potential for the entertainment industry. The Super Mario games have created some of the most beloved characters in pop culture history, and the iconography of warp pipes, mushrooms, go-karts, and carnivorous plants is instantly recognizable. It’s the kind of pre-packaged movie franchise that Bob Iger probably salivated over during his mid-2000s IP shopping spree.
For years, the elephant in the room was the horrendous “Super Mario Bros.” from 1993. That monstrosity, which infamously reimagined Mario and Luigi as live-action New York plumbers played by Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo, reportedly scared Nintendo executives out of the movie business for a quarter century. But in fairness to everyone involved, the source material wasn’t particularly fleshed out at the time. The filmmakers had to make everything up because Mario and his friends were just pixelated little silhouettes who ran in one direction through a two-dimensional world. At that point, you might as well just make a movie about Tetris!
However, the subsequent decades have seen the “Mario” universe grow into a sprawling three-dimensional world. Not only do we know all the heroes and villains and side characters, but most of us can name a few racetracks from the fictional auto racing league that exists within the games. Simply put, there was already an incredible blueprint for a movie franchise. When Illumination announced plans to make an animated Mario movie, all it had to do was translate what already existed to the big screen without screwing it up.
Fortunately, nobody screwed it up. From the decision to cast Chris Pratt in the titular role to the production design that seems to be an exact replica of the Wii-era Mario games, “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” largely plays things by the book, which is exactly what the assignment called for. Co-directors Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic have delivered a perfectly serviceable movie that is going to make a lot of kids very happy and a lot of adults very rich.
When we meet our heroes, Mario (Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day) are just Brooklyn plumbers trying to make ends meet. They recently started their own business, but things are going so poorly that they still live with their disapproving parents. The film cleverly explains the whole “Chris Pratt’s Mario voice sounds a lot like his regular voice” thing by revealing that the two brothers play up their Italian heritage by speaking in stereotypically Italian accents in their plumbing commercials. But outside of the marketing gimmick, they just sound like everyone else in Brooklyn.
After a plumbing accident sucks them into the New York sewer system, the brothers are pulled into two separate vortexes that lead them into two alternative dimensions. Mario ends up in the idyllic Mushroom Kingdom, while Luigi is pulled into a hellish kingdom of darkness ruled by the evil Bowser (Jack Black).
As Mario sets out to look for his brother, he seeks the help of Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy), the human woman who rules over a kingdom that otherwise consists exclusively of anthropomorphic mushrooms. The two humans soon realize that they can help each other. Peach is sick of living under the constant threat of war from Bowser, so she recruits Mario to help her mobilize an army to take him down and retrieve Luigi in the process. Once she teaches Mario how to navigate this strange video game-like world, they can set out for the Kong Jungle and attempt to recruit an infantry of gorillas to back them.
Mario quickly learns that power-ups are the key to his survival. Peach explains to him that all those floating cubes with question marks on them are actually filled with various mushrooms, flowers, costumes, and other nifty items that allow the stout plumber to punch above his weight against gorillas and dinosaurs. Once he learns how to make himself huge and occasionally breathe fire, it’s over for the nefarious actors in the Mushroom Kingdom.
Parents shouldn’t expect a Pixar-level experience, but Matthew Fogel’s script has at least as much narrative heft as the best Mario games. Kids’ movies can be — and often are — so much worse. Nobody is reinventing the blue shell, but Horvath and Jelenic do an excellent job of recreating the Mushroom Kingdom from the recent video games while adding a decidedly cinematic flair. For certain demographics (i.e. families lamenting the fact that it’s been months since a major kids movie hit theaters), this is going to be an absolute godsend.
But even if it’s not your thing, everyone should find a way to coexist with this franchise very quickly. Because it’s hard to see a future where we don’t get a lot more of these. “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” is a true masterclass in exploiting juicy IP, building out an intricate-yet-familiar world that’s littered with video game Easter eggs that could set up other movies. A spin-off film about Rogen’s Donkey Kong has been rumored for a while, and it seems inevitable that another half dozen have been sketched out on a whiteboard somewhere.
Remember, Illumination has squeezed six movies (and counting!) out of a bunch of pill-shaped yellow guys who look like they just walked out of a hair plug appointment. There’s no reason to think this franchise can’t be at least that big.
Universal Pictures will release “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” in theaters on Friday, April 7.