I found The Super Mario Bros. Movie to be strangely lacking in delight, although I’ll admit I’ve played few of the games to completion. So maybe it’s really common for the stories to feature characters just menacingly shouting “I’M GOING TO KILL YOU!” over and over again. That’s not to say death and destruction are inherently unwelcome in movies made for kids. But when that’s the only thing half the characters say for most of the running time, it wears a little thin. As with its The Grinch a few years back, Illumination takes a simple, classic story and contorts it to feature-film length without ever considering the emotions that made it successful in the first place, resulting in a pop culture-powered mishmash of repetitive jokes and cheeky references. The result is just kind of assaultive and lame.
Mario (Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day) are twentysomething brothers living in Brooklyn with their expansive Italian family. Their dream is to become the most successful plumbers in the borough, although the road ahead is long: They’ve never actually booked a single client. By total happenstance, they’re swept up in an adventure across the galaxy, where Mario has to help Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy) combat the dastardly turtle Bowser (Jack Black) to save her Mushroom Kingdom. Along the way, they team up with Toad (Keegan-Michael Key) and Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen), among other popular video-game characters from the last 40-plus years of Nintendo products.
The script by Matthew Fogel (who also wrote the bad The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part) does its best to craft a rote “why doesn’t my dad approve of me” motivation for Mario, Luigi and, for some reason, Donkey Kong. I don’t know. The setup is lame. The payoff is unnecessary. Who cares if these icons find parental love?
It’s certainly not that important in the grand scheme of things. The story is basically a journey from one recognizable setpiece to the next. References to the games are fast and furious, probably quite rewarding for keen audiences. But sitting next to a 4-year-old with little Mario knowledge, I could tell he was lost. Worse yet, the film didn’t really give him much reason to care about these characters or their world. There were two moments where he responded to what he was seeing on screen — a brief flashback with Mario saving Luigi on a playground and the moment Donkey Kong does a little bit of his rap while dancing.
I genuinely considered granting his request to leave early because I just didn’t care about what was transpiring onscreen. It was nice to see the Super Smash Bros.-style arena in which Mario and Donkey Kong fight, but I quickly grew tired of Donkey Kong constantly wanting to kill Mario. Sure, they’re antagonistic, but they never grow into anything recognizable as a friendship. Similarly bizarre is the shallowness of Luigi’s role in the plot: He’s absent for almost the entire movie, despite initially providing an interesting counterweight (and emotional connection) for the otherwise blandly heroic Mario character.
Mostly, though, I return to the fact that the film is just lacking in real delight. The characters are all mostly dour or bland, the worlds are as beautiful as they are ill-explained and fleeting, and the action is very reminiscent of motion-smear latter-day superhero stuff.
To be clear: I’m not going to be a hipster and claim the total piece of shit from 1993 is remotely comparable in quality. Neither will I do that for either of the recent Sonic films, which sucked a lot more than this. As far as feeling like a passable advertisement for the franchise, The Super Mario Bros. Movie is probably the most successful video-game film to date. Just don’t expect much else from it.