THE SUPER MARIO BROTHERS MOVIE leans too heavily into NES-talgia.

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The Super Mario Brothers Movie: 2023: 92 min. Universal.

Written by Matthe Fogel, based on the Nintendo characters. Directed by Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic.

Like so many geeky folks of my age (41 next week!), I grew up on the Nintendo Entertainment System (curious, did you spell out N.E.S. or say it as one word? I’m a speller) and the games featuring a pair of brothers who would be the company’s most well-known mascots (overall is Pokemon more well known now? A question I’m not going to do any research into answering). Although I’ve not played a new game for a long while, I relish the memories of hours of play in the Nintendo world. Although other hardware brands have come around over the years, I’ve always been a Nintendo kid, preferring their systems and flagship franchises over the rest. 

There is a massive nostalgia (Nes-talgia? I’ll see myself out) factor in working around The Super Mario Brothers Movie. It may be oxymoronic to say, but even in the new players joining the fold, the instant iconography of everything about Mario, the sounds, the music, the design, the items, everything, is a testament to their power of surface simple creation. Easy to learn, hard to master, continually creative world and level building, continual re-invention but staying true to the heart of the games (while expanding into a large series of other genres) has kept the series in high regard over the last five decades. It’s an earned nostalgia. 

Unfortunately, the film banks so hard on the nostalgia factor, it forgets just about everything else to make a good film. The infamous failure of the previous adaptation of 1993 (a truly bad film, but one I’ve gained appreciation for over time despite… well.. everything about it) threw just about everything down the drain, keeping names and vague overtures in a strange way of translating the already strange world into a live-action narrative. In a course correction thirty years later, The Super Mario Brothers Movie attempts to bring every little thing one might connect to Mario into the film (a notable missing connection may be a pair who also share -ario and -uigi in their names, a gold coin bet we’ll see them in the sequel).

It’s cute and fun at the start. Snacking on some ‘memberberries and soaking up a continual stream of references as Mario brothers are introduced barely making it in Brooklyn as plumbers breaking out on their own from the Wreckin’ Crew, and eating at the Punch-Out Cafe (nearly every inch of their Brooklyn is a reference to something Nintendo). There’s fun to be had in trying to pick up everything (I particularly enjoyed a nod at my childhood staple ofThe Super Mario Brothers Super Show). As the film progresses, and one has a stomach filled with ‘memberberries, it soon becomes clear that’s all there really is to the film

A series of references and nostalgia bait, and gets tiring and overwhelming as every few minutes delves into another corner of Nintendo (such as Super Smash Brothers, or Mario Kart) one after the other. This is why this review is not peppered with more than a handful of Mario-based puns: it might be fun to start, but annoying by the end. A thousand words of forced references after complaining about 92 minutes of them? That wouldn’t be right. 

Looked at separately, these sequences are fun and interesting. They are well-designed and animated. The movie is gorgeous. The animation is crisp and beautifully rendered. The whole is packed with detail. There is no skimping on the technical level.

There’s joy in the cleverness of translating game mechanics into a cinematic world. Many of the gags do work. In many cases, I did enjoy seeing a lot of things I grew up on brought to a different medium. This includes the music. Brian Tylerr’s reworking and adding to the iconic soundtracks of countless games works incredibly well. There’s an obvious love and knowledge of the material shining through every frame. 

But strip away the Mario coating and what’s left? A bog-standard family film with all that comes with that with poor storytelling that does disserve to the characters. They are the characters from the source, no needless shifting around, but with only 92 minutes, including credits (pre-credits, I clock in just under 80 minutes if I recall), so many get short-changed: Luigi, Toad, and Bowser essentially vanish for too-long stretches of time. And all are pretty bland and basic overall. 

Things happen simply because they need to for a HEY REMEMBER THIS THING joke or plot point. There is little to stick; aspects are introduced and vanish and/or put out of the way because of the “we referenced it, what’s next” quality. Don’t give it a pass simply because it’s a video game-based movie or a kid’s movie. The two recent Sonic the Hedgehog films did a fantastic job of bridging the game-to-movie gap (Sonic 2 was very close to the top of my list last year). While not primarily a video game, Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves did this to great aplomb just last week. Neither of those properties required the incoming viewer to have any knowledge of the property they were adapting. Everything a viewer needs to know was on the screen, if there was an understanding of lore and background brought in from home, it built on the experience but it wasn’t required reading. The Super Mario Brothers Movie without knowing Super Mario Brothers is a continual stream of nonsense.  

Add in (perhaps producer required) many of the foibles of this sort of animated family film and I was increasingly frustrated with it. There are the requisite groan-worthy needle drops, trite jokes with obvious set-ups and pay-offs, and not one, not two, not three, but FOUR of the “character flying through the air in slo-mo slides past the camera at the top of the arc saying ‘nnnoooooooo’ or ‘Mamma Mia’ ”gags, a cute and/or old character acts different than expected because they are cute and/or old.  Surprisingly, it does not end with a dance number. 

In the same vein of usually-studio-mandated, the cast is stacked with Regonzable Live-Action Names. Chris Pratt as Mario, Charlie Day as Luigi, Keegan Michael Key as Toad, and Anya Taylor-Joy as Peach are the “Oh hey I like them” cast. They’re fine and well-matched to their characters, perhaps a little low energy. Nearly phoning it in. Seasoned voice actors could have brought more life to them, and I wish studios would lean that way, but I get it. There are several, including Kevin Michael Richardson, in the supporting cast. The exception, as he often is, is Jack Black voicing Bowser, King of the Koopas. He brings every ounce of his infectious energy to the part. He’s basically a cartoon in real life, so he translates well to the big bad of the Super Mario World. He even gets to sing a few songs. There is a better film energy when he’s allowed to be around.

In the end, The Super Mario Brothers Movie is uneven. It has several fun sequences and clever gags. It’s one of the best-looking animated features I’ve seen. But mixed with those is a nothing plot, an overload of nostalgia and references, and so many missed opportunities. Putting it all together, it’s an underwhelming fluff film. I’m hoping now that the pieces are lined up and many of the “we need to have this!” expectations are cleared out, a sequel is allowed to breathe and gives the series a power-up mushroom.


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