Producers: Chris Meledandri and Shigeru Miyamoto Directors: Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic Screenplay: Matthew Fogel Cast: Chris Pratt, Anya Taylor-Joy, Charlie Day, Jack Black, Keegan-Michael Key, Seth Rogen, Fred Armisen, Sebastian Maniscalco, Charles Martinet, Jessica DiCicco and Kevin Michael Richardson Distributor: Universal Pictures
When the first adaptation of the Nintendo video game appeared in 1993, it was in live-action form, and was a notorious bomb scorned by fans and non-fans alike. Bob Hoskins, one of its stars, later called it the worst thing he’d ever done—“a nightmare”—and many viewers agreed with him, though it has predictably found some defenders in the three decades since.
This new reboot is unlikely to elicit such strong reactions. The computer-generated animation by Illumination (the “Despicable Me” franchise) is colorful and the pacing (courtesy of directors Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic, of the ”Teen Titans Go!” series, and editor Eric E. Osmond) energetic. Matthew Fogel’s script may be thin, but it has the virtue of being faithful to its source, with (a newcomer is advised) plenty of allusions devotees will savor. “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” will thus appeal to nostalgia buffs who remember the game fondly, and to very young kids who should respond to its simple childish exuberance.
But to the uninitiated, and kids past the age of six or so, the picture is likely to elicit a “Meh!” rather than the “Wahoo!” that characters are constantly yelling in order to instruct us how we’re supposed to react to what’s happening on screen. It makes lots of noise and has tons of antic action, but possesses zero charm, being notable mostly for its chilly efficiency.
The movie, positioned essentially as an origin story, begins with Mario (voiced by Chris Pratt) and his timid sibling Luigi (Charlie Day) leaving the Wrecking Crew and their nasty boss Spike (Sebastian Maniscalco) to start their own Brooklyn-based plumbing outfit. The initial response to their TV ad turns out disastrously due to an angry dog in the apartment where they try to fix a simple leak, and except for their mother (Jessica DiCicco) their boisterous family—which, being Italian, is perpetually sitting at the dinner table scooping up spaghetti—is largely unsupportive of their initiative. (That includes their father, voiced by Charles Martinet, the long-time voice of Mario and Luigi in the games.)
The brothers—self-confident Mario always taking the lead—attempt to make their mark by fixing a major water main break that’s flummoxed city crews, but are sucked into a mysterious portal that lands them into another world, though they wind up in separate realms there. Mario finds himself in the cheery Mushroom Kingdom, where Toad (Keegan-Michael Key), an exuberant local denizen, takes him to meet the realm’s ruler Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy), a pretty human the mushroomy minions adopted after she appeared among them.
Mario’s first order of business is to find his brother and get back home, but Luigi has been deposited in the dark realm ruled by the hyper-aggressive monster turtle Bowser (Jack Black), the King of the Koopas, who, with guidance from his chief advisor Kamek (Kevin Michael Richardson), has embarked on a campaign of conquest and takes the human captive. His defeat of the realm of furry little penguin folk and acquisition of the so-called Super Star leads him to set his sights on the Mushroom Kingdom and make Princess Peach his bride.
Mario becomes Peach’s champion, and to mount a defense they have to recruit Cranky Kong (Fred Armisen), the ill-tempered King of the Jungle Kingdom, as an ally. But he will agree to join the fight only if Mario defeats his mammoth if goofy son Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen) in a one-on-one battle. Mario wins, but a mad dash back to the Mushroom Kingdom across a rainbow-colored short cut on a variety of scooters and karts doesn’t prevent Bowser’s apparent victory. But all is not lost: the struggle is transplanted to the streets of Brooklyn, where Mario and Luigi are victorious and lauded as heroes.
In other words, the movie is basically a series of set-pieces designed to satisfy the game’s aficionados while amusing young kids who might never have been introduced to it. It will probably succeed with those groups, but to others will come across as just a brainless romp, vigorous and well-crafted but lacking much in the way of outreach to a broader audience. One exception are the opportunities afforded Black to pine away soulfully in song over his love for Peach, drumming away at the keyboard in scenes made to look like Elton John numbers. They’d be funnier if the lyrics were better—indeed, the overall score by Brian Tyler has a generic feel, though it matches the lickety-split pace of the visuals well enough—but at least bring something a bit different to the party.
Still, Black is nothing if not committed to putting Bowser’s bluster across, and the rest of the voice cast bring similar zest to their performances. Eschewing the broad Italian accents except in their opening commercial, Pratt and Day make an engaging pair (though the plot gives the latter much less chance to shine), while Taylor-Joy embraces the neo-feminist kick-ass aspects of Peach enthusiastically (the animators aren’t shy about portraying her in the most attractive ways, either). But viewers are more likely to cheer the work of Armisen and Rogen, who chew on any nugget of humor they can find in the dialogue given the two Kongs.
This is obviously intended as a reboot in the fullest sense, the reinvigoration of a franchise that will include, if not be restricted to, theatrical sequels. And so it’s hardly surprising that the closing credits include, in Marvel-esque fashion, clips that not only cap the action of this picture but point the way to another one. If it comes, one hopes that the makers will loosen the straitjacket limiting them to the established template and try something a bit more imaginative next time around.