If Nintendo seem slow to the uptake in finally mining their prized Mario empire for big screen franchising, there’s no doubting the memory of 1993’s Bob Hoskins led Super Mario Bros. flop spurred hesitation. It figures. Time, however, heals all wounds and today’s target audience may even be the children of parents born after that film’s release. Moreover, in the hands of the studio behind Despicable Me and The Secret Life of Pets, the Japanese gaming giant can breathe easy. Chris Meledandri and the Illumination team have yet to drop the ball at the box office. Not once in thirteen years and twelve films, two of which bested the billion dollar benchmark. That’s no mean feat and a track record The Super Mario Bros. Movie has no chance of breaking.
Financial success does not, of course, equate to critical acclaim. Illumination’s trick over the last decade has been less to court ingenuity than to exploit a critical gap in the threadbare family market. That being for attention-grabbing, easy-digest, half-term fodder. What with the pastel hues, pop soundtracks and palatable narratives, Illumination boast a formula as safe as houses, if increasingly reliant on purchased intellectual property. The Super Mario Bros. Movie takes an approach rather akin to the marketing of children’s yoghurts, which is to say that bright packaging and sky high sugar levels do much to paper over just how unfulfilling the product is in consumption. There’s ample fun to be had, kids will love it, but that doesn’t make it good for anyone.
All that said, the negative reaction stoked in some corners of the internet by the casting of Chris Pratt as Mario proves unwarranted. Doing away with the game’s hokum Italiano early on – a smart call and neatly explained – Pratt’s Mario is a buoyant, engaging lead, and well paired with Charlie Day’s loveable Luigi. It is their relationship that drives the wider whole, while a surprisingly believable chemistry propels their bond as brothers.
Certainly, the flow of the film is at its best when the duo are united. There’s something fundamentally endearing about the sight of the two portly plumbers – one red, one green – working together, particularly in a Brooklyn based ‘real world’ opening. Mario and Luigi’s signature dungarees are realised with delightfully textural verisimilitude, while an odd sense of vulnerability is felt as either removes their cap. When the story demands Mario and Luigi be separated, the ebullient charm of the film around them somewhat, if not entirely, wavers.
It’s a grand, unexplored piping city beneath the streets of Brooklyn that sees Mario and Luigi sucked into the Nintendo universe. While the latter lands in the dark lands, Mario winds up in the Mushroom Kingdom, here visualised as a picture book reworking of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. There’s more than a smidgeon of the Wizard of Oz to Matthew Fogel’s plotting, which pits the wicked Bowser (Jack Black) against the daintier but brazen and capable Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy). Bowser has world domination on his agenda, bolstered by a vast army of Koopers. Only Peach stands in his way but mushroom men can’t quite compete and know it: ‘we’re adorable!’
Little surprises here. Stringent influence from Nintendo sees the film’s plot wrangled through various modes of Mario gameplay, each currently on the market. In lieu of active character development, meanwhile, Teen Titans Go! directors Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic rely on brand recognition. The result is inconsistent. Much, such as a ‘rainbow road’ rally and Donkey Kong (Seth Rogan) smash up, entertains, pepped by a terrific translation of the game’s techno beats to full blown cinema score by Brian Taylor. It is in between these set pieces that rote writing and a hit and miss gag reel begin to drain the film of its zanier qualities.