It’s-a here: The Super Mario Bros. Movie is watchable at home (now streaming on Netflix, in addition to streaming on VOD services like Amazon Prime Video), officially and legally now, after it leaked on Twitter during the spring of 2023. Whoops? Either way, it didn’t eat too much into the film’s box office take, which currently stands at $1.3 billion-with-a-B internationally, a number that implies many things, including but not limited to, the following: 1. STUDIOS NEED TO RELEASE MORE FAMILY-ORIENTED FILMS THEATRICALLY, all caps necessary, because TSMBM’s popularity not only reflects the power of Mario IP, but a pent-up audience that didn’t have a reason to go to the movies for what felt like eons (the previous kid-friendly release was Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, which debuted more than four months prior). 2. Wow, 1993’s live-action Super Mario Bros. looks extra-terrible now. And 3. Nothing’s official yet, but in the wake of such major international success, I’d wager my life savings that Universal already has greenlit 2 Mario 2 Bros., King Boo: Electric Boogaloo, Donkey Kong Hits the Bong (with Seth Rogen reprising the voice role, and writing and directing of course), Yoshi’s Revenge, Princess Peach and the Legend of Curly’s Gold, The Mario Kart Movie, Mario Kart 2: Cruise Control, Mario Kart Meets Paul Blart, Mario Kart: Dark Land Drift, The Super Smash Bros. Movie, Super Smash Bros.: The Quest for Peace and The Amityville ? Block, just for starters. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves, and stick to reviewing a completely unreviewable movie.
THE SUPER MARIO BROS. MOVIE: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The Gist: We get the ball rolling in another world or dimension or something, where we meet Bowser (Jack Black), a very large imperialist turtle who enslaves a race of small penguins and conquers/destroys their icy lands. And then he finds a ? box and smashes it and takes control of the super star inside of it, which is this movie’s MacGuffin. CUT TO: Modern-day Brooklyn, where plumber brothers Mario (Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day) have just launched their own business with a TV commercial that makes the Ghostbusters’ ad look like La Dolce Vita. But it works, because they get their first call and rush out to fix the leak, their side-scrolling journey accompanied by Slayer guitarist Kerry King’s shredding guest solo on the Beastie Boys’ “No Sleep Till Brooklyn,” proof that what was edgy and cool several decades ago will eventually be tamed by the pop-cultural blandification machine and assimilated into the deathless nostalgia borg (and pad the musical artists’ bank accounts with “passive income”). Not only do our guys wrestle with persnickety pipes, but they have an encounter with an aggressive dog, a sequence that has nothing to do with anything whatsoever, but hey, at least we have something amusing to look at, with the bright colors and goofy characters and zany action, right?
Then Mario and Luigi go home. They’re two adult men still living with their parents, and everyone doubts their ability to maintain reasonable self-employment. Here, we learn that Mario thinks mushrooms are yucky, and won’t eat them, which is what you call an inside joke. Suddenly, an opportunity for our boys to prove themselves pops up when a Brooklyn water main breaks and they rush off to help – but they end up being sucked into a magic pipe and deposited into a strange world chock-full of spinoff-able intellectual property. Luigi finds himself in the Dark Land, where Bowser’s minions scoop him up and imprison him. Mario drops into the Mushroom Kingdom, where he meets a little weird guy named Toad (Keegan-Michael Key), who takes him to his leader, Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy), who’s shocked to see another human in… what exactly is this place called, anyway? Mario World? It can’t be, not yet, because I’ve just realized this movie is, insert deep sigh here, an Origin Story.
I digress. Mario wants to find Luigi, which dovetails with Peach’s desire to vanquish Bowser before he lays waste to the peaceful and benign Mushroom Kingdom. But first, she has to train Mario in the art of platform gaming, which involves leaping on little blocks and ducking under things that wallop you and busting ? blocks that give you extra powers, and all that. She zooms through the training course – in heels, even! – lickety-split, while Mario trial-and-errors his way through it, failing and starting over and failing and starting over and failing and starting over like he’s in a… a… what do you call it… time loop? Is that right? Maybe not. Anyway, before they face Bowser, Peach determines that they need to get help from the Kongs, a conglomeration of apes who include Cranky (Fred Armisen), Donkey (Seth Rogen) and Diddy, although the latter only makes a brief cameo and is probably being saved for the sequel. And then comes the Super Smash Bros. part, and then the Mario Kart part, and then the big boss battle, which occurs during Bowser’s attempt to force Peach into marrying him. Meanwhile, where the hell is Yoshi? I could answer that but, you know, NO SPOILERS.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Is it sacrilege to say Wreck-It Ralph? Kind of. It’s definitely sacrilege to say Wreck-It Ralph is the better movie, but the truth cares not for context.
Watching Hearing: Let’s just say Jack Black is the only feasible casting choice when the character is a version of Bowser who likes to sit at the piano and channel his inner Elton (or Kate Bush?).
Memorable Dialogue: Praising the Mario Bros.’ TV ad, Luigi makes a probably unintentional thou-dost-protest-too-much meta-joke about the movie itself: “That is not a commercial. That. Is. Cinema!”
Sex and Skin: None.
Our Take: Allow me to push past the Mario Movie’s obvious crowd-pleasing nature and cheery escapism for some typical film-critic pedantry: This thing feels like it was written by a calculator. It’s less a screenplay and more of a loose outline, a list of inter-franchise references strung together by the flimsiest of plots and hits-of-the-’80s needle drops: There’s a nod to an old TV cartoon, there’s a recognizable character making a cameo, there’s ‘Holding Out for a Hero,’ there’s some action inspired by one of the video games, and hey is that Seth Rogen’s voice I hear? It dashes along lickety-split and only slows down for a brief intermission in which Black-as-Bowser-but-mostly-as-Black croons a torch song for Princess Peach, which is one of the movie’s rare moments of inspired comedy. It’s all so transparently mechanical in its structure. And that’s the issue with longstanding franchises-slash-intellectual property – it once was the product of inspiration, now it’s just a product.
But it’s easy to be of two minds about the movie, because it’s lively, expertly animated, energetic, lightly amusing and modestly ambitious. If there’s anything resembling a message here, maybe it’s the portrait of Mario as a man of perseverance (although you’ve already learned that lesson if you’ve been tempted to wing your $80 joy-con through the window after being killed by Bouldergeist for the 116th time in a row.) Nobody’s trying to change the world here, or invoke the tragedy of the human condition. It’s not Pixar, it’s the company behind Minions delivering a bullseye for eight-year-olds who will giggle and whoop for 92 minutes, then go home, snug their plush Shy Guy in the crick of their arm, pick up the Nintendo controller and launch a campaign to spend $60 of their parents’ money for a new game. It’s perfectly fine with adhering to the relentless-joke-factory-with-celeb-voices formula, and executing it for maximum appeal. As for the “controversy” over Pratt voicing Mario – did you really want to hear an obnoxious faux-Italian stereotype voice IT’S-A-ME!-ing in your face for 92 minutes? That was the smartest calculation of all.
Our Call: STREAM IT. The Super Mario Bros. Movie is entirely acceptable family entertainment. It also leaves plenty of room for improvement when the inevitable sequels, spinoffs and series are launched in a quest for the next billion dollars.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.