The Super Mario Bros. Movie

The Super Mario Bros. Movie

In The Super Mario Bros. Movie, Mario (Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day) are two working-class jamokes from Brooklyn who leave their steady jobs to start their own plumbing business.  When they reveal that they’ve put all of their savings into a corny-yet-catchy television commercial to promote themselves (with stereotypical “a-this and a-that” phrasings) I thought, these guys are living the American dream.  They should be commended for doing something so risky, given how most small businesses fail within the first year.  So when their own family openly derides the brothers at the dinner table for being idiots, I was a bit stunned.  Is this the message we really want the future business owners in the audience to hear?

Yes, I’ve zeroed in on the least important aspect of this movie.  Everyone seeing this movie knows that Mario and Luigi exist in a video game world, so the business they are trying to get off the ground is irrelevant.  Kids don’t want to spend ninety minutes watching these guys unclog drains and plunge toilets.  They want to see them jump around, ride in a cart and duke it out with Donkey Kong.  Making a Mario Brothers movie any other way is a fatal mistake.  If you don’t believe me, see the incredibly awful 1993 movie.

Naturally, their first job doesn’t go as planned.  A simple leaky faucet turns into a disaster thanks to an evil golden retriever who takes an immediate dislike to Mario.  (This golden is the anti-Doug from the movie Up.)  While the brothers ponder what to do next, a massive flood threatens Brooklyn.  Mario figures they can make a name for themselves by pitching in, so they descend into the sewer.  They wind up getting sucked into a Warp Tunnel that takes them to another universe, one that looks a lot like a Mario Brothers video game.  There are huge coins, golden cubes that give you powers when you punch them, non-player characters and a villain who wants to rule over everyone: a dragon named Bowser (Jack Black).

Bowser and his turtle army (known as the Koopas) quickly overwhelm a bunch of penguins to obtain the all-powerful Super Star.  Bowser’s plan is to use the star as leverage to convince Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy) to marry him.  If she does, the two of them can rule the Nintendo-verse side-by-side.  If she refuses, Bowser will use the star to destroy her Mushroom Kingdom.  Obviously, a marriage between the human Peach and the obviously non-human Bowser seems impractical to say the least, but this movie runs on video game logic.  You either go with it or go home.

Due to the vagaries of Warp Tunnel travel, Luigi and Mario were separated upon entry into the Nintendo-verse.  Luigi lands in the Dark Lands and is quickly captured, while Mario lands in the Mushroom Kingdom.  Mario is quickly befriended by Toad (Keegan-Michael Key) who takes him to his leader, Princess Peach.  Even though she sees Mario as a well-meaning screwup, she lets him join her side.  Peach’s plan is to recruit the Kongs, Crazy (Fred Armisen) and Donkey (Seth Rogan), to the cause.  Crazy Kong says that they will join her if Mario can defeat his son Donkey in a video game-influenced challenge.  To everyone’s surprise, Mario succeeds, and the motley crew drive over to Bowser’s castle using various karts.  The Mario Kart sequence was my favorite of the movie, and I say that as someone who completely sucked at the game.  (Long live R-Types!)

Everything eventually leads to a final confrontation between Bowser and the Super Mario Brothers on the streets of Brooklyn, and while I won’t spoil the ending, things turn out well for our heroes.  Which makes sense because we can’t keep playing the movie over and over until we win.

As someone who never got into the Mario Brothers games, I wasn’t sure I would be able to  enjoy The Super Mario Bros. Movie.  This movie was clearly made to appeal to the fans of the games first and everybody else second.  (There were many Easter eggs that went right over my head.)  Even though I was not a member of the movie’s target audience, I enjoyed it well enough.  The plot of SMB is a very familiar one, featuring a  group of misfits who put aside their animosities to defeat a common villain.  As far as paths to take when constructing a narrative built on elements culled from video games, this was not an original one by any means.

Even with that in mind, I liked SMB for what it does bring to the table: colorful imagery, fluid (and purposeful) video game-inspired action sequences and an occasionally playful sense of humor.  The vocal work is decent, with Jack Black and Seth Rogan making the best impressions.  (They have the best lines in the movie by far.)  The movie takes no risks with the source material, which was probably a corporate mandate given how the previous movie adaptation of the material turned out.  SMB has none of the visual anarchy or quirky humor that made The Lego Movie or Wreck-It Ralph fun for adults and children, but it’s a light and breezy hour-and-a-half that moviegoers from five to one hundred and five will be able to enjoy.  Mildly recommended.  (For kids ten and under, Highly recommended.)


Before seeing The Super Mario Bros. Movie (a.k.a. SMB), I wondered if I would be able to follow the story.  I’m not joking.  From what I’d read, the movie incorporated aspects of the various Mario games into the plot, games that I played a few times years ago and never got into.  (I was a big fan of R-Types.)  I figured that all the references to those games would go right over my head.  For example, I had no idea who the little blue guy was who spoke in morose aphorisms.  Of the significance of the fields of dancing flowers.  Or why I should care about the penguin people that Bowser and the Koopas quickly decimate.  At one point Luigi winds up in a haunted forest and is captured by some little people wearing red onesies and hockey masks.  Could they be miniature homicidal maniacs?  Of course not.  This is a movie made for little kids to enjoy.  Shame on me for thinking such evil thoughts.  Regardless, I understood enough so that I never felt lost.

The plot, such as it is, is fairly simple.  So simple in fact that I’m confident that anyone from five to one hundred and five will be able to grasp what is happening.  I do believe that people who really like the Mario games will get much more enjoyment out of the movie than I did.  However, this doesn’t mean that there isn’t anything for those who didn’t play the games to enjoy.  All of the voice talent is good, with the standouts being Jack Black as Bowser and Seth Rogan as Donkey Kong.  Chris Pratt (Mario), Charlie Day (Luigi) and Anya Taylor-Joy (Princess Peach) are fine, but their performances didn’t pop because their characters are straight-laced and blandly written.  Black gets a segment to himself where he gets to croon over Peaches as a latter-day Meatloaf.  Rogan is allowed to be full-on wacky as Kong.  Meanwhile, all Pratt and Day have to go off is a thin Italian accent and the lamest inspirational slogan I’ve ever heard in an animated movie:  Nothing can hurt us as long as we’re together.

I liked how SMB incorporated elements of video game play into the movie.  The scene in the beginning, where Mario and Luigi navigate the chaotic Brooklyn streets by foot to get to a job, was a clever take on the left-to-right scrolling nature of the SMB games.  Later Mario dukes it out with Donkey Kong in what I figured was another game.  The standout sequence is the one that I assumed was a riff on Mario Kart, where the entire gang rides in cars to Bowser’s castle.  I enjoyed these sequences because of their colorful, kinetic energy, not because I played any of the games a thousand times (or more).

The key differentiator between SMB and other movies inspired by video games was that I never felt like I was watching someone play a video game.  I definitely felt that way in the Angry Birds Movie.  I consider what the movie was able to pull off as a notable achievement.  Consider that SMB features oversized coins and huge golden blocks that characters hit to obtain powers.  Just two years ago, Free Guy gleefully satirized video game logic.  That SMB puts its video game bonafides front and center and makes it work within the context of a narrative is interesting in its own right.

One aspect of seeing this movie as a non-Mario game fan was that I was able to think about the story on its own terms.  On the surface SMB is built on the generic “everyone must agree to work together to defeat a common enemy” narrative that’s been done countless times before.  Something about SMB felt different to me, though.  The movie has a couple of working class guys teaming up with a woman leader (Princess Peach) and some radicals (Crazy Kong, Donkey Kong), factions who either tolerate each other to defeat a megalomaniac (Bowser)     who rules through force and intimidation.  The bad guy is a charismatic guy who thinks that he’s entitled to have whatever woman he wants by throwing money at them.  

Call me crazy, but I read SMB as a parable of the 2020 US presidential election.  In that case, different Democratic groups who rarely (or barely) saw eye-to-eye formed a coalition to defeat President Trump.  Yes, I know, the plot of SMB is so basic you can read anything into it.  And sure, the political environment in the US tends to overwhelm everyday conscious thought.  Still, I can’t help but read SMB as symbolic of the Joe Biden presidency.  He and Mario are working class guys after all.  I never would have made this analogy if I had played the games hours on end after all.  I’ll take this as a win.

Since I didn’t see SMB until its third week of release, I couldn’t ignore the social media fury surrounding the movie.  Personally, the takes on the movie were more interesting than the movie itself.  Regardless, several topics stood out to me.  Before the movie was ever released, people were complaining about Pratt’s vocal performance as Mario in the trailer.  Then, right before the movie’s opening weekend, people were trotting out its score on Rotten Tomatoes as being indicative of something.  Finally, folks bemoaned how the movie pales in comparison to the Pixar films.  I’ll address each of these below.

For the life of me, I don’t get why some corners of social media have it out for Chris Pratt.  Everything I’ve read about him indicates that he’s a nice guy.  I’ve never heard a single instance where he’s said or done anything harmful to anyone else.  I suspect some people are angry at him for divorcing Anna Farris.  I hate to break it to people, but married actors who look like the perfect couple often get divorced.  Divorce is a fact of life for a lot of marriages, even those involving people who are genuinely nice.  It’s sad when it happens to celebrities we think we know and can relate to, but it does.

The other reason for the ire directed at Pratt involves his religion.  I remember comments from Eliot Page where she spoke out against Pratt’s religious beliefs.  I do not remember anyone saying that Pratt personally disparaged Page’s decision to come out as LBGTQ or transition to being a man.  I do remember Pratt offering to speak with Page to make amends for anything he may have done to upset him.  From my standpoint, I try not to let someone’s religious beliefs determine my opinion of someone I don’t know.  People believe all sorts of crazy things to get through the day, and I’m not going to disparage Pratt over his belief system.  Society seems to have gotten past Tom Cruise and his Scientology weirdness; it should do the same with Pratt.

As for Pratt’s vocal work, I stated above that it was fine.  It is nothing in comparison to his work in The Lego Movie and its sequel, but the difference is in the material, not Pratt.  Like most actors, Pratt can only do what is in the script.  Mario doesn’t have much to say that’s memorable.  There’s nothing Pratt can do except read his lines.  He’s traditionally played goofball jokesters to great effect, and part of his success is due to his personality.  But the same can be said of any actor.  Give them bad lines to read, and they’ll be as interesting as stale bread.  My hope is that they liven up the Mario role in the sequel.  Same for Charlie Day’s Luigi.  Anyone who appreciated Day in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (or the Godzilla movies) knows the unique energy and weirdness Day brings to a part.  He got the same nothingburger as Pratt and it shows.

I’ve been a follower of Rotten Tomatoes for years.  Like many others, I appreciate how it aggregates critic and audience assessments of films and assigns a score.  Rarely do I make a moviegoing decision based on the scores.  I prefer to see movies with stories I’m interested in, regardless of whether they are judged fresh or rotten by critics.  For example, I enjoyed Jurassic Park: Dominion even though it currently has a 29% critics score.  I even found things to like with Morbius and it has a 16% critics score.  I like all kinds of movies, critical darlings and crowd pleasers alike.  So when folks were staging that SMB had a 56% critics score before opening weekend I really didn’t care.  I wanted to see the movie with my family and Rotten Tomatoes wasn’t going to deter me.  Based on how the opening weekend went, as well as the subsequent weekends, I don’t think Rotten Tomatoes had any bearing on the decision making process of families who have seen it.

I agree with many people on Twitter in the belief that the cultural impact of Rotten Tomatoes is wildly overstated.  While there are some people out there who do use it to guide their moviegoing choices, I believe that it exists mainly as fodder for the “audiences see crap” parlor game that is both pointless and exhausting.  When I hear someone proclaim that “Rotten Tomatoes has ruined cinema,” I say bullshit.  Rotten Tomatoes has never been a factor in cinemas’ rise or demise and never will be.  Moviegoers have been seeing critically-derided movies based on existing intellectual property for decades.  Rotten Tomatoes has nothing to do with that trend.  Believing–or pretending to believe that it has is disingenuous.

As for SMB not being as philosophical as the Pixar movies, I agree to a point.  Not every Pixar movie is a soul-stirring experience, however.  Pixar has released fifteen movies since Toy Story 3, a movie widely viewed as one of Pixar’s best.  Of those fifteen, I’d say half of them were great (ex: Inside Out, Coco and Soul), a quarter of them were entertaining but not metaphysically so (Monsters University, Incredibles 2), and the rest were duds (The Good Dinosaur, Cars 3, Lightyear).  My point is that Pixar, once the gold standard for animated films that touched children and adults, is having trouble being Pixar these days.

That said, not every animated film needs to be as great as Up to succeed in being entertaining.  The Despicable Me/Minions movies have been a lot of fun, and have definitely lacked the gravitas of Pixar’s best.  (Case in point, the Fart Gun.)  I really liked The Bad Guys and its message was how being good is better than being bad because when you’re good, your tail wags.  Yes, Pixar undeniably raised the bar for animated films.  That doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for a movie whose sole intention is to entertain people of all ages.  Not every animated film needs to ponder mortality like Puss and Boots: The Last Wish to be considered a success.  I was raised on cartoons from Warner Brothers and Hanna Barbara and I can tell the difference between Scooby Doo and Dumbo.  There’s always been a place for silly kids stuff in entertainment.  There’s no need to be patronizing with audiences for their choices.  Puss and Boots did well at the box office and so is SMB.  There’s room enough for everyone.

Finally, this is the third movie I’ve seen this year (after Air and The Pope’s Exorcist) where the soundtrack features several tunes from the Eighties.  Two of them, A-Ha’s “Take on Me”, Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out For A Hero”, should be put out to pasture.  AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” was a surprise, as animated films aimed squarely at young children usually never use a heavy metal track.  The most interesting song of the bunch was The Beastie Boys’ “No Sleep Till Brooklyn”, a love letter to the band’s hard-partying early days.  Since I’m very familiar with the song, hearing it on the soundtrack while Mario and Luigi walked around the city was incredibly bizarre.  Everyone involved signed off on it probably because it includes the city Mario and Luigi hail from in the chorus, and not because of the song itself.  The juxtaposition of that song and the movie could end up being the most incongruous moment in a movie I see this year.

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