The most delightful part of Nintendo’s entire Mario franchise is how — despite all their decades of conflicts in various video games — Mario, Bowser, Peach, and the rest of their crew have really always been a troupe of actors putting on whimsical stage plays for a captive audience. That idea alone isn’t exactly what defines Universal and Illumination’s new The Super Mario Bros. Movie from co-directors Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic. But much in the same way Super Mario Bros. 3’s ending invited players to think about and appreciate it as being more than just a video game, The Super Mario Bros. Movie plays like a magical celebration of how this franchise has evolved.
For years after Nintendo’s first live-action Super Mario Bros. movie debuted in theaters and immediately bombed at the box office, it seemed as if the studio wanted nothing more than to leave the entire endeavor in the past and steer clear of trying to make movies. But one of the more intriguing things about Universal’s new feature — a co-production between Nintendo and Illumination — is how effectively it manages to weave together so many iconic elements from the franchise’s bigger outings, like the ’90s movie, Mario Kart, and the Donkey Kong games, into a story that’s equal parts nostalgic and reflective of the franchise’s future.
In addition to being generally good guys who know a thing or two about pipes, The Super Mario Bros. Movie’s Mario (Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day) are also introduced as Brooklynites and small business owners trying to make a name for themselves in the film’s opening scenes. As adults and the two youngest members of their surprisingly large family, both of the Mario bros. know how crushing it can be to come home every day to nothing but incessant criticism. But at the heart of Mario and Luigi’s bond is also the mutual understanding that, so long as the two of them stick together, there’s little they can’t accomplish.
That attitude’s what gets the brothers up every morning and inspires them to go out into the world in search of bill-paying gigs. But it’s also why they’re both so game when they unexpectedly get sucked into the adventure of a lifetime by way of a mysterious green pipe hidden somewhere deep in New York City’s sewer system.
Because it’s so dense with painstakingly crafted details meant to spark joy from the jump, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when The Super Mario Bros. Movie’s intangible magic — the general feeling, rather than the movie’s actual magic — first kicks in. But as the Mario bros. jump, flip, and twirl their way across town on foot in an early action sequence styled after the classic Mario side scrollers, you can immediately get a sense of just how serious the movie is about translating the essence of its source material into something that feels familiar but also like its own distinct quantity.
This ends up being the case with most of The Super Mario Bros. Movie’s complex set pieces, which doesn’t come as a surprise given Illumination’s track record and Nintendo’s reputation for being extremely protective of its brands. What does come as something of a shock, though, is how genuinely inoffensive (which is to say “not off-putting”) Pratt and Day’s takes on Mario and Luigi are — a concern the movie addresses head-on with some solid gags and a textual explanation as to why Mario occasionally sounds like he might have spent some time in Pawnee, Indiana.
As much information about the Mario bros. as the film lays out before they’re isekai-ed across the galaxy, it’s far, far more reserved about others like Bowser (Jack Black) and his sorcerer Kamek (Kevin Michael Richardson), who serve as hammy villain foils to the Mushroom Kingdom’s Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy) and her loyal subject Toad (Keegan-Michael Key.)
If you’ve played through games like Super Mario World or Super Mario Odyssey, then the general shape of The Super Mario Bros. Movie’s plot will be obvious from the moment you first hear why Bowser’s so hell-bent on getting his hands on a certain star-shaped MacGuffin. The movie works, though, because as it’s building toward its logical and very traditional Mario kind of ending, it uses every possible opportunity it has to make its various fantastical worlds feel like living, breathing, organic places that you’d want to spend hours exploring if they were parts of an open-world video game. It’s cool as hell every single time someone’s outfit transforms after they ingest mushroom power-ups, but it’s things like being able to see each of the individual seeds on a fire flower’s face flicking like a candle that really make you appreciate how hard the movie’s working to get things “right.”
At times, it almost feels like Illumination might have gone overboard in terms of dotting its i’s and crossing its t’s for a movie that moves incredibly fast and consistently has the air of something that’s been crafted with children prone to rewatching the same thing in mind. But it’s just as easy to interpret those things about the film as signs of how much more immersive and engaging Nintendo plans for its Mario theme park and future games to be.
Watching The Super Mario Bros. Movie, it’s impossible not to imagine what it might be like to one day play a game as visually rich running on hardware that puts current-gen Nintendo Switch to shame. That’s probably (part of) the reason the movie exists. But as big-budget commercials for video games and consoles go, The Super Mario Bros. Movie’s going to be undefeated for quite some time.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie also stars Seth Rogen, Fred Armisen, Sebastian Maniscalco, and Charles Martinet. The movie’s slated to hit theaters on April 5th.