One thing every great Mario game has in common, from 2D classics like Super Mario World to seminal 3D installments like Super Mario 64 or the recent Nintendo Switch masterpiece Super Mario Odyssey, is a certain effortless charisma. No convoluted backstory, no sardonic attitude, no pretension whatsoever: just easy, straightforward video game fun, elevated by splashy visuals, tight controls and an attention to detail that borders on perfectionism.
Illumination and Universal’s “The Super Mario Bros. Movie,” the second attempt at a big-screen adaptation of the game franchise after the woefully unsuccessful “Super Mario Bros.” (1993), gets many things about Mario right, often painstakingly so. The Mushroom Kingdom, the magical land in which the film is largely set, looks pretty much exactly like the Mushroom Kingdom of the games. Fireflowers, super stars and question mark boxes all look, sound and function like they’re supposed to, and when the notoriously vexing blue shell makes a fan-baiting appearance, it spins, crashes and explodes in a way precisely faithful to the source material. Even Mario (a grating, unctuous Chris Pratt), who doesn’t sound like the Mario of the games, still manages to invoke trademark catchphrases like “it’s a-me” and “let’s a-go.”
But while the details are meticulous, the attitude is all wrong, trading the simple, unaffected charm that has served the character so well since his introduction in 1981 for a snarky and fatuous air that leans hard on winking humor and bland, hackneyed irony. This is Mario in the Marvel mold: every line a punchline, every gag an arcane meta reference for the nerds who can’t get enough of that sort of thing. Served some spaghetti with mushrooms, Mario winces and says he hates mushrooms. Because in the game he’s always eating mushrooms, you see. Sound like fun yet?
In this rendition, directed by Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic, Mario and his cowardly younger brother, Luigi (Charlie Day), are upstart plumbers from Brooklyn who, for reasons that feel both unnecessarily complicated and curiously underexplained, are zapped into the fantastical world of Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy), Toad (Keegan-Michael Key) and the nefarious Bowser (Jack Black). Much of what transpires has some basis in the original games, in a way that often feels oppressively pandering, and the movie’s commitment to fan service frequently results in baffling decisions in the context of the film. When Mario recruits Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen) to take on Bowser’s army, they elect to travel via go-kart. Are go-karts inherently interesting or compelling? No. Is there any logical reason why they would use go-karts? No. But there are go-karts in the video game Mario Kart, so in karts they go.
Every level of the original Super Mario Bros. ends with an apology that has become one of the game’s most enduring catchphrases: “Our princess is in another castle.” In “The Super Mario Bros. Movie,” it’s deployed as a flat, mirthless inside joke — another pat reference, unfunny and predictable, charged with a yawning desperation to please. It doesn’t seem right that the spirit of such a pure and exuberant character should be reduced to something so flippant and basically cynical. And though every conceivable effort has been taken to make this “Mario” as Mario-like as possible, the attitude is antithetical to exactly what the franchise so wholesomely represents.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie
Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 32 minutes. In theaters.