I thought I was flat fucking done with Illumination.

After Sing, after The Secret Life of Pets, after their Dr. Seuss adaptations, after suffering through a pop culture landscape loaded with so many of those goddamn Minions that it drove me away from ever seeing a single one of their movies, I thought I had seen enough. Whatever film Illumination was coming out with next, we could be safely assured it would be made for an audience of grade schoolers on a perpetual sugar high. Anything produced by this company would be loud, colorful, hyperactive, brain-dead nonsense in which spectacle and shiny objects took priority over such luxuries as storytelling or potent artistic statements.

In other words, their numerous flaws made them the perfect choices to deliver a halfway decent Mario film.

While the ’93 live-action attempt has its fans, the film unquestionably made a huge mistake in going for dark and grungy sci-fi when the games were clearly works of colorful high-flying fantasy. Adapting the property into an Illumination movie — suitable for a very young audience, with colorful images smashing into each other as fast as modern animation will allow — makes all kinds of sense on paper.

But of course we ran into problems with the voice cast. Specifically with regard to Chris Pratt voicing the iconic lead role, taking the job from Charles Martinet, who’s been the voice of Mario for over 30 years. Indeed, Martinet was obligingly given a cameo role in the film as Mario’s father, capably proving that he could’ve delivered a performance more than worthy of anchoring this franchise.

The problem is that Martinet isn’t a name talent. And we’re talking about goddamn Illumination here. No way in hell were they going to cast a no-name actor to voice the lead in their tentpole picture. Again, they’re all about shiny objects — who cares whether the actor is right for the character, it’s all about the name they can put on the poster.

That said, if we’re talking about name talent to voice Mario, Chris Pratt is not the best we could’ve gotten. If we’re talking about name talent of Italian heritage, Pratt isn’t even on the list! We could’ve had a Mario voiced by Bradley Cooper. Or Paul Giamatti. Or Danny DeVito. We could’ve had a Mario voiced by Nicolas Fucking Cage. Shit, Steve Carell has voiced something like a dozen characters for Illumination, why in the nine hells couldn’t they have gotten him back for this?!

(I should note that Charlie Day has Italian roots, so at least Luigi’s got that going for him.)

But enough of this. What’s the story? Well, it’s as basic as you’d expect. Bowser (Jack Black) is threatening to conquer the Mushroom Kingdom unless Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy) agrees to settle things peaceably by marrying him. As an alternative, Peach wants to ally with the Kong army, hoping that apes and toadstools fighting together will be enough to repel Bowser.

Meanwhile, Mario and Luigi (Pratt and Day, respectively) are struggling to start up their own plumbing company in Brooklyn. They eventually find a Warp Zone under the city and get separated, with Luigi sent to be Bowser’s prisoner while Mario is sent to the Mushroom Kingdom with the goal of rescuing his brother. Hilarity ensues.

To repeat, it’s Luigi who gets to be the hostage in need of rescue, while it’s Princess Peach who goes questing with Mario. This subversion gets mixed results.

On the one hand, the games have repeatedly shown Peach to be at least as competent as Mario, going all the way back to the second freaking game. If Peach is the spunky and stylish proactive boss bitch while Luigi is the clumsy coward who constantly needs his brother to bail him out, that lines up perfectly well with how the characters have been depicted over the past few decades. I need hardly add that Peach is vastly more capable as a guide to the Mushroom Kingdom than Luigi could ever be, and this arrangement means that Peach and her relationship with Mario are given the necessary time and breathing room to develop.

Of course, the obvious downside is that this same time is taken away from Luigi. Not only is the junior Mario brother separated from his sibling through over half the movie, he’s imprisoned and damn near completely useless through most of the runtime. I might add that as the film progresses, Luigi is joined in prison by all the other races and characters captured by Bowser, none of whom contribute to the climax in any appreciable way. It’s only Luigi who gets to join the fight at the last minute, and this sharp spike in his development feels completely unearned.

I should emphasize that this is a Super Mario Bros. movie in which one of the Mario Bros. is sidelined through pretty much the entire movie and we don’t actually see the two working together to advance the plot until the last fifteen minutes. That’s kind of a big fucking problem.

The power-ups don’t exactly help. Yes, it’s an adaptation of the Mario property, so of course we expect the power-ups to be there and to play a direct role. The problem is that the way the power-ups are utilized here, they feel like a cheap shortcut. Most times, when Mario defeats an enemy or overcomes some challenge, it has significantly less to do with him getting smarter or faster or more accustomed to his surroundings, and more to do with him waiting it out until he finds the right power-up.

The Super Star is a key example. At the outset, we’re told that Bowser is such a huge threat because he’s taken possession of the Super Star. Bullshit — it’s the other way around. We’re repeatedly shown on multiple occasions and in multiple ways that Bowser is more than capable of taking over the Mushroom Kingdom with his own forces and firepower. The MacGuffin isn’t there for Bowser to use against our heroes, it’s there for our heroes to use against him at some plot-critical moment. Thus the villain tees up his own downfall and ends up doing pretty much all of our heroes’ work for them, plain and simple.

That said, I do appreciate how the film treats Bowser as a legitimate threat, while contrasting that with his romantic insecurities for comic relief. It works superbly well, and it certainly helps that Jack Black genuinely sounds like Bowser and not like himself. Black really is acting here… except for his big “Peaches” number, because of course Jack Black needs some ludicrous comedic musical number whether it makes contextual sense or not.

Keegan-Michael Key sounds like he’s having fun playing Toad, though the character barely registers as such. When Toad first meets Mario and pretty much immediately greets him like a new best friend with no questions asked, that’s a surefire sign that Toad was intended to be more like a plot device than a proper character. By contrast, Anya Taylor-Joy fares much better as Peach, perfectly embodying the character with just the right mix of competence and pathos.

Sadly, the weak links of the cast are Fred Armisen, Seth Rogen, and Chris Pratt. Yeah, the actors with the three least expressive voices are the weakest in the cast, what a shock. In all three cases, it’s the animations and expressiveness of the characters that compensate for the lackluster voice work.

(Side note: Yes, I’m aware that Seth Rogen has a number of prominent voice acting roles on his CV. That’s quantity — I maintain that quality is another issue entirely.)

The soundtrack is another point of contention. No, I’m not talking about the score that elegantly weaves in so many classic Nintendo themes and leitmotifs. No, I’m not talking about the savvy and seamless inclusions of the “Plumber Rap” or the “DK Rap” as catnip for the longtime die-hards. No, I’m talking about the needle-drops that have nothing to do with the property. Hell if I know why “Thunderstruck” or goddamn “Take On Me” are in a Super Mario adaptation, except that it’s a fucking Illumination picture so of course we have to pander to the nonexistent moviegoers who simply wouldn’t go see or enjoy a Super Mario film adaptation unless they get a training montage set to “Holding Out for a Hero”. IDIOTS!

With all of that said, I can’t make it emphatically clear enough that there’s a palpable love for the source material here. I’m not exaggerating when I say that the filmmakers pulled from every generation and genre of Mario games with nothing placed out of bounds. The film is loaded with Easter eggs, every single one ideally placed and utilized in such a way that it rewards longtime fans without leaving any newcomers behind. Spike might be my favorite example — if you don’t know about Spike from “Wrecking Crew”, if you’ve never heard of the “Wrecking Crew” game, and if you have no idea how that game connects to Mario, you’ll just be watching another cliched character serve his purpose. But if you know all that history, that’s a whole new layer of enjoyment for you.

Oh, and be sure to stay through all the credits, there’s a juicy sequel tease at the end.

If I dislike The Super Mario Bros. Movie, it’s only because of how much I dislike Illumination. They make films that are all style and no substance with the excuse that it’s “just for kids”. Look at the movies coming out of Pixar. Or Dreamworks. Or Studio Ghibli, or Laika, or Sony Pictures Animation. Or anything made by Tomm Moore. We’ve got all these studios and filmmakers coming out with family pictures that push boundaries and challenge their audiences, imparting crucial artistic messages in sincere and intelligent terms without condescending to anyone because of their age. Illumination has the talent, the resources, and the industry pull to make movies worthy of being held to a higher standard, but they consistently choose not to and I genuinely hate them for it.

(Side note: You ever notice how it’s only movies and TV shows that are held to a lower standard because they’re made for kids? “Go ahead and feed your kids those moldy carrots and soggy peas, it’s just food.”)

That being said, I can only hate the film so much because for better or worse, it delivers nothing more or less than exactly what was promised all along. If you want an Illumination picture, you got one. If you want a Super Mario film made in the colorful, fantastic, high-flying spirit of the games, here you go. For that matter, if you want a Super Mario movie made of, by, and for people who genuinely love the games, paying tribute to four decades of Nintendo history in a way that will appeal to newcomers and lifelong fans in equal measure, this is the best you could hope for.

It’s harmless, hollow, superficial fun. If that’s all you’re looking for, then give the film a look. But consider this a recommendation under protest. This movie succeeds in large part because the franchise has been so desperate for a decent film adaptation for as long as I’ve been alive, and it just happened to be a wretched studio that finally made a passable effort. Fuck Illumination.

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2 thoughts on “Movie Curiosities: The Super Mario Bros. Movie

  1. Definitely one of the harshest reviews I’ve seen, and I can understand where that’s coming from given Illumination’s track record. Going to see it tonight myself, so I’ll judge it after my viewing, though this does give me some fair warning to the missteps made in development.

    Side note, but I would’ve gone with John DiMaggio as Mario’s voice. He’s an established VA, and he can do a good gruff Brooklyn accent.

  2. I’ve seen the first two Despicable Me movies. They were all right, and the Minions had their moments, but they’re not quite up to the level of Dreamworks. Dreamworks had a fun villain-focused movie called Megamind that goes a lot deeper in its themes than Despicable Me.
    And yes, we didn’t really need the feature-length Dr. Seuss adaptations. As I said in one of my own blog posts, most Dr. Seuss stories don’t really work when you try to expand them to feature-length movies.
    It’s always disappointing when proven talents are passed over in favor of ‘big marquee names’. But it’s a fact of life in the movie industry, sadly.

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