The arguments around The Super Mario Bros. Movie look a bit silly in hindsight. Would it buck the trend of bad video game movies? Bah, Sonic and Detective Pikachu had already leaped that hurdle. Was it going to make bank? Mario is a cross-generational icon. Of course it was going to make bank. And have critics lost empathy with their audiences by scoring it far lower? Eh, perhaps, but this was always a crowd pleaser that was going to play better with fans. It’s critic-proof.
Having seen it twice now, once with friends, another with kids, I’m at peace with my opinion on it. It is a glorious recreation of the Mushroom Kingdom – as if my memory of the games had been inflated with bellows and given life. It glows with love for the franchise, showing its affection through audio, texture and detail, squirrelling items and characters into the corners of the frame. But it’s also basic and safe, delivering not much more than a return journey through the kingdom. Whisper it, but it’s the same plot as Trolls World Tour, almost to the last plot point.
The plot is concise enough to fit into a paragraph. Mario and Luigi investigate a subterranean flooding in Brooklyn, only for that plot point to get tossed in the bin as they find a warp pipe. Anyone who’s skipped past level 1-2 of the first game will know that this is a portal, and it takes them to different corners of the Mushroom Kingdom. Luigi ends up in the mitts of Bowser, who is keen to take over the Kingdom and marry Peach; while Mario ends up with Peach, who is defending the world from Bowser. So ensues a race to get Luigi back and stop the big lizard.
But while the storytelling is simplistic and the character development could be summarised as ‘plumbers get more confident’, we don’t care. It’s like complaining that Skittles aren’t filling enough. It’s not why we handed over our money. The Super Mario Bros. Movie generates so much goodwill from its authenticity and likeability that the resulting momentum carries it through. Critics are right to be critical of it – The Lego Movie looms over it as an IP that went somewhere more exciting – but they’re also wrong to dismiss how well The Super Mario Bros. Movie connects with its audience.
There are moments that spark and show how much sheer willpower went into getting this made. Jack Black as Bowser had already received the plaudits and rightly so. He manages to bring sympathy to a portrayal of Bowser that could easily have been pathetic or disempowering. A Mad Max-take on Mario Kart is genuinely exciting, and manages to turn an awkward bit of tickboxing (you can hear the execs screaming that Mario Kart had to be in there) into something thrilling. And talking about questions that are stupid in hindsight – the whole ‘will Chris Pratt’s voice be good enough?’ is tossed into the bin with the very first scene.
There are also moments that don’t work, limply crawling across the screen. There’s a duff sequence where characters tease Mario for chatting up Peach. We couldn’t help but feel that the will-they, won’t-they romance between Peach and Mario was half-arsed and didn’t need to be there. And Smash Bros is mostly in there because why not. But none of them prove costly for The Super Mario Bros. Movie. It just swallows a mushroom and leapfrogs them all.
Reviewing The Super Mario Bros. Movie now feels a bit foolhardy. Everyone’s seen it, and the critical response has proven to be irrelevant. But if there’s anything left to say, it’s that before The Super Mario Bros. Movie came out, we would have spat out our coffee at the prospect of a Nintendo Cinematic Universe. Now, we’ve got a head full of ideas for Metroid and Legend of Zelda movies. If that’s not a sign of success, we’re not sure what else is.