Regular listeners of my show, On Set, know that I’ve spent significant minutes talking about the perils of trying to make the perfect “video game movie.” It’s because there have been so many attempts lately, of course, but also because it’s just a fun thing to have opinions about. That said, I’ll give it a rest this time around. This is a move about Mario the Plumber and his brother Luigi after all —everyone’s favorite platform jumpers and cart drivers. No need to get too serious, right?
If you recall the 1993 live-action “Super Mario Bros.” starring Bob Hoskins, John Leguizamo and Dennis Hopper, you were probably nervous when you learned Hollywood was trying again in 2023. The earlier film was strange and all over the place tonally, with generally unfavorable reviews across the board. Hoskins himself reportedly called it the worst thing he ever did, and most folks today remember it as a cringey flop. It’s this film we point to as the earliest example of the video game movie curse, like a big screen patient zero. No wonder it took so long to give it another go.
“The Super Mario Bros. Movie” (note the subtle but important title difference) is out now in theaters. It has an all-star cast of its own, featuring Chris Pratt, Charlie Day, Keegan Michael Key, Anya Taylor-Joy, Seth Rogan and Jack Black. I’ll state for the record right now that the rampant online chatter about Pratt’s “Italian” accent in the first trailer was unnecessary. The issue is put to rest quickly, if a bit awkwardly, at the start of the film. Save for a few obligatory “It’s-a-me” moments, everyone uses their own voices after that. Pratt has a good track record with voice-over work, and he’s perfectly fine as Mario. In fact, everyone is perfectly fine in their roles with only Jack Black’s Bowser standing out from the pack. He has a brief love song to Princess Peach that is straight out of a Tenacious D video.
I used the words perfectly fine (twice) to describe the performances, but the phrase really does apply to the entire experience of this film. It’s colorful and bouncy, but it’s never better than fine. If the 1993 project took way too many weird liberties with the source material, then this 2023 iteration takes none at all. It’s as if the directors were afraid to make another mistake. This is a plot on rails. With a rushed, often painfully linear path that abandons thematic development in favor of fan service and bite-sized gags, “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” plays out like an extended Saturday morning cartoon. The credits roll at about an hour and twenty minutes and, though I know I recently scolded “John Wick Chapter 4” for being too long, “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” script could have used more breathing room. Instead, the story is stripped down to its absolute barest essentials, with almost no reason to root for anyone outside of a prior investment in the franchise.
I was a Sega guy when I was younger, so the Mario games are not in my personal pantheon. Because of this, I’m sure I missed 90% of the Easter eggs and other knowing winks sprinkled throughout “The Super Mario Bros. Movie.” Diehard followers will get more out this than I did. I’m sure of it. But I suspect even they would have liked to see Mario and Luigi take better advantage of the cinematic scale they were working with.
I think Mario is still waiting for a truly great film adaptation. Unlike poor Bob Hoskins, this certainly isn’t the worst thing Chris Pratt ever did. But his and everyone else’s talents deserved a bigger, more fully realized world to inhabit. It’s all silly, I know. But it didn’t have to be.