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The Super Mario Bros. Movie (2023)

When I saw the trailer for The Super Mario Bros. Movie I had no idea that they had made it. I can't imagine how I missed any reference to it but I did. Anyway, I tentatively started watching it and it really brightened up my day. It looked like it contained everything I could want and expect from a Mario movie. It had Mario, Luigi, Princess Peach, Bowser, Karts, Rainbow Road and a plethora of visual references that I could not keep up with! I was in. This being Mario, how would it all be set up? What  was the heroic mission he will be undertaking with his friends? And how was Bowser going to steal the show?

Super Mario Bros. and its associated characters has been part of popular culture since the 1980s! (There is a great chapter in Mat Alt's book Pure Invention on Mario.) I remember playing it on the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System and being frustrated by a platformer that required precise timing on jumps and actions (but when it worked ... oh so satisfying!). The cast of characters from the Nintendo stable are now everywhere and just as much a part of the everyday as Disney characters are. As such there is a tendency to project a bit of ourselves onto them and a desire for the companies who own the characters to keep them consistent with how they see them (more on that later).  

In this movie Mario (voiced by Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day) have just set up their own plumbing business to the ridicule of their ex-employer and slight disappointment of their father. They do however have a great TV advert (and they even have their own website). As all new ventures tend to have a slow start Mario, whilst watching the news, sees that there is major water leak flooding Brooklyn and sees an opportunity to prove the nay-sayers wrong. As you can imagine things do not go according to plan and the pair end up finding and being pulled into a Warp Pipe under the Brooklyn neighbourhood.

Our brothers now are separated with Luigi ending up in the Dark Lands - Bowser's territory - and Mario in the Mushroom Kingdom. With Toad (who was much less annoying than I was expecting with a voice provided by Keegan-Michael Key) Mario heads for the castle of Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy) where we find out that the Mushroom Kingdom is under threat - Bowser is on his way and he has a Super Star power-up that he captured from the Snow Kingdom after defeating the Penguin King.

Princess Peach decides that the only way to defeat Bowser is to join forces with the Kongs and that with strength and heart they would be unstoppable. As she is about to make preparations for her journey Mario bursts in and after a training montage of trial and failure (reminiscent of how we had to play those early Mario Bros. games) they both set off on their shared purpose - Peach to save her kingdom and Mario to save Luigi...

Having read some of the reviews after watching the movie there were comments about how it was not that creative or innovative. I can totally see where they are coming from. It is not a movie like Across the Spider-verse where Spider-man has been reimagined time and again for new audiences across different media (sometimes to great success) so can take a risk. The last Mario movie was awful and not really what the fans of the game wanted to see, even if it was more 'creative'. If the Super Mario Bros. Movie  from 2023 is the start of a new chapter for Mario and other Nintendo characters then I hope to see some interesting and new takes on them .. but with these beloved characters (and others including the Disney cast) it would be a challenge and risk to take them 'off-brand' and do something really unique with them. For this movie (the first?) it packaged up visual and aural nostalgia in such a fun way that I couldn't help but enjoy it. I'm also glad I watched it at home because the number of times I pointed and exclaimed a reference would have annoyed people in the theatre!

Although Super Mario Bros. may have had some unkind reviews as of 4 June 2023 it has grossed $1.3B and was the second biggest animated move in history being beaten only by Frozen II. So it has been doing something right.

And those right things can be laid at the directors (Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic), Illumination Studios Paris and the film they created with Shigeru Miyamotyo from Nintendo. With the Mario world being so established there is not a lot of fun visual work they can do and there is a wide cast of characters they can use to fill in the world, so visually Illumination Studio Paris didn't have much to work with. Where they could play was with the animation and in some ways how they told the story. Early on as Luigi and Mario go to a job the dash through Brooklyn becomes the classic 2D side-scrolling platformer. The character animation and motion is also first rate and seems to align with what is on display - a graceful fluid camera when Peach is in training vs. the slightly static and lumbering Mario as he tries time and again to train and then when he does it is free and wild.

Every frame is packed with colour and countless references to the Mario and associated Nintendo titles and it is fun trying to spot them all. For fans of Mario Kart there is a great sequence towards the end of Act 2! But once you have spotted everything there is less to keep you coming back for another watch - it is unlikely to reward multiple viewings for a deeper hidden meaning. It is however full of colour and motion and fun and it would the kind of movie to watch when you need a fun pick me up.

Some of my favourite references included Kid Icarus (which I never completed!), the Kart selection montage the gaming arcades and one great musical number (below).

It would be a crime to underplay how important the sound and music in this movie are. It is a brilliant balance of modern orchestral movie and games scores with those aural cues from the Mario Bros. franchise from coin blocks, to fire balls and the oh-so familiar 8-bit level music. Brian Tyler and Koji Kondo bring it all together in a way that really hits home how important the sound and music in a game (and movie) is but unless it is really bad or missing we do not notice it. Unexpectedly Bowser has his musical numbers which were a lot of fun - Jack Black really letting Tenacious D out to play. And probably my favourite part of the movie involves Bowser, Kamek a piano and one of those classic Super Mario Bros. level music - a great blend of visuals, music and comedy.

Again I missed the chatter about the voice cast because I just didn't know the movie was coming out and I have no complaints. Chris Pratt does a decent job of portraying Mario, I liked how Peach was given a bit of fire and drive by Anya Taylor-Joy but Jack Black as Bowser really stole it for me - just the right amount of unpredictability, comedy villain and genuine heart.

The Super Mario Bros. Movie is a lot of fun for those who have played any of the multitude of Super Mario Bros. games out there. This movie is steeped in visual cues and references from the outset both overtly in the characters and sets but also in more subtle background set dressing. What is even more joyful are the snippets of game music and effects which were so much a part of the games when the visuals were ... not as sophisticated as now. What could have been a movie of in-game cutscenes turned into something entertaining, with colours and sounds that was just joyful. It certainly is a movie for the fans of the game franchise hitting all the beats it needed to and just about being accessible and fun for those who are not. It was always going to be a challenge to do something that would fit into the Nintendo and Mario 'branding' that would be different or super-creative. Here they opted for fun and entertainment and it certainly delivered on that. Sometimes entertainment does not need a deep message, it can just be entertaining and give you 90 or so minutes to laugh and reminisce. The Super Mario Bros. Movie is definitely entertaining.


IN A NUTSHELL:  Bright, colourful, fun and nostalgic The Super Mario Bros. Movie entertains.