james debate
james debate

Saturday 22 April 2023

Directed by Aaron Horvath, Michael Jelenic 
Written by Matthew Fogel
Produced by Chris Meledandri, Shigeru Miyamoto
Starring Chris Pratt, Anya Taylor-Joy, Jack Black, Charlie Day, Seth Rogen
Studio Illumination
Running time 92 minutes

super mario bros brothers 2023 film nintendo miyamoto yoshi luigi bowser peach chris pratt jack black

There are no good videogame movies, or so the conventional wisdom goes. Any time a celebrated videogame series is adapted to other media, this old chestnut invariably rears its head. Only, it's not really true and hasn't been for a while. Just this year we've had an adaptation of The Last of Us released to high critical acclaim, while the last few years have seen not one, but two Sonic the Hedgehog movies and Detective Pikachu, all certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. So it is perhaps not so unheard of as the wisdom would suggest. What is fair to say is that videogame adaptations have a low hit-rate. While there are plenty of good ones, most are not (the reason for why that is the case is a discussion for another time). 

So when Nintendo decided to try their hand at adapting Mario to the big screen this year, it predictably spawned the usual breathless headlines asking whether this would be the film to break the (mostly mythical) videogame movie curse. Lazy journalism aside, the point stands that there is a lot riding on the success of this film. Nintendo clearly has visions of an expansive cinematic universe, yet has historically been very protective of its IP - understandably so given their early misadventures into Hollywood in the 1990s. So the real question is simply, have they finally cracked the movie industry?

The Super Mario Bros Movie is an adaptation of Nintendo's beloved mascot. Fully animated by the people at Illumination, best known for Despicable Me and Minions. The decision to award such a flagship IP to a studio known for fairly forgettable kids movies certainly raised a few eyebrows, but in truth it's hard to imagine any of the top tier animation studios agreeing to adapt someone else's IP so it shouldn't have come as a surprise. 

It is fair to say that this is a cut above the typical Illumination movie in terms of quality. The animation is gorgeous and highly detailed, the writing is witty and there's a general sheen of quality throughout. The film is also jam-packed full of references and your favourite characters from the games. It's actually fairly impressive how much they've managed to cram into a short runtime without it falling apart completely. There's Mario Kart, Donkey Kong... they manage to sneak in a few obscure references to Jump Man and Kid Icarus. We even get the obligatory "your princess is in another castle" gag. The score also makes extensive use of the music from the games, to good effect. This is all very pleasing to a videogame nerd such as myself.

The characters themselves are fairly well translated to the big screen. Mario and Luigi are basically the Italian-American plumber stereotypes you expect them to be. Donkey Kong is a lovably arrogant jock. Toad is delightfully zany (a good call there). But the real star of the show has to be what these writers have done with Princess Peach. In the games, Peach is almost always just there as a squeaky-voiced damsel in distress, just waiting to be rescued by Mario. Here, she is reimagined as kind of a badass. Tough, independent and capable. A truly great character for young girls to be watching in a movie. I really hope Nintendo follow suit with this interpretation of the character in their future games. 

The cast is also mostly pretty good. Anya Taylor-Joy, of course, is great as Peach. Jack Black gobbles up every scene he's in as Bowser. Charlie Day turns out to be pitch perfect casting as Luigi. If there is one somewhat weak spot, it is, unfortunately, the main character. It's hard to see Chris Pratt's casting as Mario as anything other than betting on starpower. His performance here is mixed, and not just because of his inconsistent accent. 

Unfortunately, but for these strengths there's just not much there under the surface. This is quite a shallow movie. There's not much of a real story so to speak and the characters have only minimal depth to them. No one really has an actual character arc. There's no hero's journey, Mario doesn't learn and grow from his experience. He starts off as a plucky, if underappreciated, plumber who wants to save Brooklyn, and ends up basically the same guy. The same goes for Princess Peach, who starts off a badass, and remains so throughout the film. They could have at least added some tension in the form of Peach being initially skeptical or cold towards this mysterious newcomer, Mario, or have Mario start off as jaded and cynical before growing into the hero we know and love, but they don't. There's perhaps a slight hint of growth for Luigi, who starts off a bit of a coward before finding some bravery at the end, but it's all very perfunctory.

You might argue that this is the fault of the source material, after all the Mario games are more known for gameplay than story and have rarely attempted any kind of character development or consistent worldbuilding. But a good adaptation needs to consider the elements of the source material that do and don't work in a new medium and adapt accordingly. The Sonic movie is a good example of this. Paramount correctly decided that simply transposing a game onto the big screen wouldn't work and instead focused first and foremost on making a good film, using elements from the IP. At the time, that film was criticised by many from straying too far from the source material, but the Mario movie is a golden example of the opposite, what happens when you adhere too closely to the source material.

The film does also struggle a bit for trying to fit too much into its short runtime. As noted earlier, the film doesn't completely fall apart into a mess, but it does sometimes feel a bit slap-dash, like a sprint to see how many references and elements they can squeeze in, with little rhyme or reason to any of it. It's good that they introduced all these elements, it gives me hope that there is more to come when Nintendo grow this into their envisioned cinematic universe. It is my hope that this serves mainly as an introduction, and that the next projects flesh these elements out a bit more.

To be clear, this is definitely not a bad movie, but set your expectations appropriately. This is a fun little romp with a lot of bright colourful gags for kids, and nostalgia for adults. It's unfortunately a bit shallow and forgettable, but the real value may yet be realised in how it sets up the future Nintendo cinematic universe.

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