The Super Mario Bros. Movie (2023) Review

One of my favourite childhood memories is growing up playing the classic Super Mario Bros. game back in the ’90s. It was a fun video game that allows me to navigate Mario through different stages, running and jumping over the terrain, knocking down enemies (Goombas and Koopa Troopas are some of the villains that quickly come to mind) and of course, hitting the coin blocks that may give the player coins or a mushroom power-up. The latter gives Mario a temporary special ability to transform himself into a bigger size.

So, when Hollywood decided to adapt Super Mario Bros. into a big-screen adventure, I was looking forward to seeing whether they can pull off the first-ever live-action video game movie. The 1993 movie of the same name boasts the right casting decision of enlisting (the late) Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo to play the iconic Brooklyn plumbers of the Mario brothers. But the husband-and-wife directing team Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel made a colossal mistake of re-imagining the video game’s otherwise bright and colourful vibes into a surprisingly bizarre and gritty version. The word “faithful” was certainly thrown out of the window, resulting in one of the worst video game movies ever made that Hoskins himself labelled Super Mario Bros. a f*****’ nightmare a few years later.

For those who have seen the 1993 movie, you may or may not recall the ending where Samantha Mathis’ Princess Daisy shows up at the front door of Mario and Luigi’s apartment asking them to help her on a new mission. That “new mission” would have paved way for a sequel if it wasn’t for the first film’s critical and financial debacle. It would take the popular Nintendo video game series not a few years but rather almost 30 years later to finally come up with a new Super Mario Bros. movie after the notorious 1993 flop made its debut back in May 1993.

Mario (Chris Pratt) and Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy) in "The Super Mario Bros. Movie" (2023)

So, here we are — The Super Mario Bros. Movie, which arrived in a computer-generated animated form rather than a live-action take just like the 1993 version or even a live-action/CGI hybrid seen in the first two Sonic the Hedgehog movies. At the time of writing, The Super Mario Bros. Movie has already made over US$700 million in just two weeks and still counting. But as usual, the mammoth size of its box-office earnings this far doesn’t always equal quality and I hate to say that The Super Mario Bros. Movie happens to be one of them. I have high hopes for this new movie after seeing how faithful it has shown in the trailer, which successfully captured the look and feel of a Super Mario Bros. video game.

The story — credited to Matthew Fogel, who previously wrote the formulaic Minions: The Rise of Gru last year — however, falters the most. I get that the movie may have been designed for kids and as family-friendly entertainment. And I understand the story shouldn’t have to be complicated or something that resembled “Oscar-winning material”, considering the video game series itself is a straightforward fantasy adventure. Keeping it simple and accessible is the way to go and while it does strike a chord among many audiences who have already seen it, I wish I could share the same sentiment.

But this is a movie we are talking about and not a video game I have a joypad in my hands to control the player (Mario, that is) throughout the journey. Without the interactive nature of a video game, it has to rely entirely on the actors, screenwriter and director — in this case of The Super Mario Bros. Movie, we have co-directors Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic of the sadly underappreciated Teen Titans Go! To the Movies fame — to bring the movie to life.

Problem is, The Super Mario Bros. Movie plays it too safe for its own good: We first see Brooklyn plumbers Mario (voiced by Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day) has been struggling to start their own business even after they made a commercial. Then one day, their opportunity arises when a broken water main made the headline, prompting the Mario brothers to fix it. While working underground in the sewer, they find themselves sucked into the mysterious green pipe that leads them into a fantastical realm. Mario ends up in the Mushroom Kingdom while Luigi got separated and captured by Bowser’s (Jack Black) minions.

Jack Black voiced Bowser in "The Super Mario Bros. Movie" (2023)

As Mario tries to make sense of the Mushroom Kingdom, he met a few characters along the way, namely Toad (Keegan-Michael Key) and Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy). The latter turns out to be the ruler of the Mushroom Kingdom, where Mario and the princess agree to help each other to save Luigi and also her kingdom from Bowser. Well, that’s about it. The entire movie is basically about saving Luigi and the Mushroom Kingdom and of course, defeating Bowser and his minions.

Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic’s overall direction is more dutiful rather than bringing a sense of creativity and inspiration into the movie. I don’t mean something as misguided as the one seen in the 1993 version but at least, it helps to step up a few notches above in terms of storytelling. Fogel’s screenplay is as utterly predictable and banal as it gets. I find it hard to care about Mario and Luigi’s fates throughout their treacherous journey into the unknown since these characters are more like charisma-free, walking-and-talking avatars than someone with distinct personalities, unlike Hoskins and Leguizamo who actually did a better job nearly thirty years ago. It also doesn’t help when Chris Pratt’s voice performance as Mario, who barely sounds like an Italian while Charlie Day’s Luigi is mostly undermined throughout the movie.

There are a few things I do like about The Super Mario Bros. Movie, though. The animation is vibrant and colourful as it should be and I love how everything looks game-accurate from its character designs to the various backgrounds reminiscent of the Super Mario video game worlds. Fans, in the meantime, will have a field day spotting plenty of Easter eggs and references, covering Punch-Out Pizzeria to the Super Mario veteran Charles Martinet’s recognisable voice acting and the brief sight of Donkey Kong’s brother, Diddy Kong from Donkey Kong Country, just to name a few.

Credits also go to Horvath and Jelenic for painstakingly re-creating some of the familiar moments from the game. This includes the Super Mario Bros. 2 training montage revolving around Princess Peach and Mario, the one-on-one Mario vs. Donkey Kong battle and the Rainbow Road chase setpiece straight out of the Mario Kart game. Interestingly enough, the supporting cast steals most of the show here with Anya Taylor-Joy’s feisty turn as Princess Peach and Keegan-Michael Key’s hilariously deadpan role as Toad both deserve equal mention. Jack Black’s scenery-chewing antagonist character Bowser is a spot-on casting choice and we even get to see him performing the now-popular piano-laden “Peaches” song.

Not to mention the familiar sound effects and musical motifs from the Super Mario video game that can be heard throughout the movie. Don’t forget to stick around for the mid-credits and particularly the post-credits scene. Overall, The Super Mario Bros. Movie has a few worthwhile moments but it wasn’t enough to overcome the sheer banality of its storyline. Here’s hoping the inevitable sequel can improve better in this area.