Say what you want about Super Mario Bros. (1993), it’s at least interesting. A spectacular failure, perhaps, but a film of imagination (maybe over imagination). It is doing something and certainly sticks with the viewer. On the other hand, the very functionally named The Super Mario Bros. Movie is proficient. Emptily proficient. It is refined down, sanded down really, to the point of disinterest: layers of Nintendo polish creating a sheen but no texture. It certainly is a Mario film: it looks like Mario; the gang is all there (well, mostly); it is full of references. This is all aesthetic, though, and every element in addition to this just feels unforgivably bland. An overtly functional movie with no spark or soul.
The story is what you expect. Mario and Luigi are plumbers from Brooklyn; they get (due to contrivance) sucked into the Mushroom Kingdom; they also get separated — Luigi captured by Bowser while Mario makes his way to Princess Peach’s castle; Bowser is going to destroy the world; Mario and Peach (and a Toad, vaguely Captain Toad-esque) team up to stop this. The only barrier in the way of complete expectation is that Peach is not a damsel, she is the pursued. Mario is not saving the Princess (though there is a joke about her being in another castle, because of course there is), they are planning on bringing the fight to Bowser — with the help of Donkey Kong. This slight deviation from the classic Mario ‘story’ is precedented, though. The new narrative framing is from Super Mario Odyssey (2017), where Bowser’s main plan is to wed Peach. His white wedding suit from that game makes its way into this film, as does his marital aspiration.
This choice is hardly surprising, as everything of interest in this film is directly from the games. It looks really nice, credit to technically strong animation but also to established and timeless art design. The designs in the world of Mario are excellent and this film drops so much of it in (if the film does one thing well, it is encouraging the viewer to pixel hunt for references; this is nice but is also a somewhat vapid approach to filmmaking). One interesting part is that it slightly deals with the fact that living in a world built around platform levels would be a bit of a nightmare. The level design of Mario games is a real part of the visual design of the world of the film; at points, the joke of the scene is that the path ahead is needlessly contrived. There are also discrete platforming sequences, or ‘gameplay’ adjacent sequences. The first one is the best one, a side-scrolling style run through Brooklyn as Mario does some platforming to get to a job on time. The virtual camera moves wide and pans across, allowing the action to happen in frame and for it to unfurl like a kinetic platformer: it’s like watching a speed run.
Later, we have other platforming sequences using full on Mario paraphernalia, but it feels like the camera doesn’t care. The same is true in a mandatory Mario Kart sequence and in a one-on-one fight that is in the vicinity of Super Smash Bros. (the film would be better if it leant into this — it’s a fight with power-ups, but imagine if there were Smash Bros. items instead and it was on Final Destination!). These set-pieces showcase dedicated visual design but they are so poorly served by the direction. Our camera races through them, pushing things forward too fast and giving the sense they just exist for vague excitement and as generic plot advancement. There are really cool 3D platformer setups and we just blast through it, never really holding back to give you a view of Mario-goodness.
This rushed feel is the tenor of the film. The plotting moves too fast, not establishing character (or even personality, something well within the purview of what the film should be doing) in any real way and not finding time to really evoke much interest. This is partly down to the script, which does have some moments of creative humour but is mostly very bland. Dialogue is perfunctory and often a little annoying. It is a lot of known elements and established dynamics that feel almost lazily deployed. It is a film that just kind of happens on the screen, hanging there in a not overly interesting way. Overdone themes about fatherhood and belonging are awkwardly put in but the overall lack of identity or purpose is a film long problem. The one idea of the movie is to put Mario on screen, and it does that. There is just little beyond this.
Lack of imagination or interest is further shown by bland needle drops. The film even uses Bonnie Tyler’s Holding Out for a Hero, making a sequence just feel like a sub-Shrek 2 (2004) moment. Music is deployed every now and then and the choices are uniformly dull and often a bit jarring. This is part of the overall functionality. This is a film that vaguely does film stuff and therefore evokes very little interest. The uninspired Chris Pratt casting is ultimately quite indicative of the wider film. Everything feels overly focus grouped or defined by a narrow view of the film’s purpose. It exists to exist, and finds no interesting way of doing so. The safest, blandest Mario movie may almost certainly guarantee a similarly safe box office return but it doesn’t make for a good movie.