‘The Super Mario Bros. Movie’ Review: Not Quite A Super Smash

Aaron Neuwirth reviews The Super Mario Bros. Movie, Illumination's visually faithful take on the iconic video game franchise that lacks more cleverness for further appeal.
User Rating: 4

I feel like I should be fair to Mario. After all, he taught me to type. With that said, I can only offer so much praise to The Super Mario Bros. Movie. As the second attempt to deliver a grand cinematic experience for the iconic video game plumber, where this effort succeeds in creating a visualization that looks incredibly faithful to the franchise, it comes up lacking in other areas that count. Say what one will about the commercial failure that was the live-action Mario film from 1993, but it at least felt ambitious. Whether or not this animated Mario effort was being carefully controlled by Nintendo or just living up to the low standards I see when it comes to films from Illumination, this is not the super smash success one would hope for.

Serving as an origin story for the bros, Mario (voiced by Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day) are struggling plumbers from Brooklyn who find themselves accidentally transported to the Mushroom Kingdom. Having been separated during their travels through an elaborate green pipe, Luigi eventually finds himself imprisoned by the nefarious Bowser (Jack Black), king of the Koopas. Mario, determined to find his brother, manages to team up with Princess Peach (Anya-Taylor Joy) and the loyal Toad (Keegan-Michael Key) in an effort to go after Bowser, with reluctant help from Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen) and the Kong army.

For all the internet debates over the vocal casting choices in this film, it is nice to note that none of my issues have to do with the performances. Now, I am certainly more on board with professional voice actors having more of a shot to play these roles. I also can’t say any of the major stars outside of Black really do something special with what’s offered. However, I can at least appreciate what came out of seemingly the most controversial aspect based on the initial announcement of this movie.

Of course, it would be even better if the film were more worthwhile, but sadly, it misses out on being stronger. Directors Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic (best known for their work on Teen Titans Go!) certainly seem to know their Super Mario, as this film is packed with easter eggs and plenty of familiar sights, sounds, and more. However, there’s not much of an effort to bring the viewer in further. Now, I get it; it’s-a-he, Mario, and setting up an expectation for greater depth in a video game movie like this is probably a lost cause. But it doesn’t have to be, right?

Clearly, this film wants to be taken somewhat seriously. For all the (very easy) jokes thrown at the audience, Super Mario Bros. attempts to be rooted in the idea that Mario is a guy who will get knocked down but keep getting back up to go after what he wants. If we’re not going to see a super irreverent Mario film that intends to subvert things similarly to what can be found in Teen Titans Go!, let alone The LEGO Movie, then having a somewhat-earnest Mario movie should mean having a bit more to chew on.

That’s what’s absent here. All of the iconic video game characters are very thinly sketched, and the story is in way too much of a rush to allow me to appreciate what it has to offer. As an under 90-minute animated flick (without credits) that very much caters to children (not inherently bad), if the goal of racing to the finish line was met, that’s perhaps all well and good for increasing the number of showtimes this movie can have in a day. With that in mind, I could have gone for a longer version if it meant slowing things down a few beats and having more of what could resemble a plot.

In terms of spectacle, sure, Super Mario Bros. is packed with it. Part of Illumination’s success comes from how well they can market big, colorful films at a lower cost than the other major animated studios. I don’t know if this Mario movie has a bigger budget than their other efforts, but it’s easily their best-looking feature yet. The balance of the cartoony world of Super Mario, matched with a believable level of texture, allows for a happy medium in realizing Mario on screen, and lets the escalating danger levels of the different stages in this film feel like they have weight.

It doesn’t hurt to see various Mario games featured in this movie. In addition to the classic Mario games, we see various action set pieces referencing Super Smash Bros., Super Mario 3D World, Luigi’s Mansion, Donkey Kong, and, of course, Mario Kart. Yes, watching a crew of racers battling their way down Rainbow Road is the sort of highlight you hope for. Not hurting is having so much of the classic theme music to go with it (when not jammed up by aggressively unoriginal soundtrack choices).

Given how so many origin story movie adaptations of games make a poor choice to spend the running time building the hero up to what the fans already know them to be, it was refreshing to have a Mario movie at least let us see so many well-established ideas from the character’s expansive universe. That said, having a decent slice of a 90-minute film still means having a lot more stuff that feels like a slog.

Maybe that’s too harsh. Again, it’s Mario, and while the track record for video game movies has improved a bit in recent years (for the record – Sonic may have lost to Mario in the console wars, but he’s beating up the plumber on screen), I can still only go so far in trying to get excited for another attempt at turning a video game into a feature film. But that also doesn’t mean accepting mediocrity as acceptable. I enjoy Mario games, and I enjoy a lot of the people involved in this feature. However, Illumination, as I already alluded to, is not an animation studio I’ve had much enthusiasm for.

There’s got to be more a Super Mario Bros. movie can accomplish outside of looking like the genuine artifact. The jokes could be better. Outside of fun visual cues for fans, surely there’s more than can be done with this world that feels like a way to engage the audience through cleverer means. Honestly, there are plenty of times when you can see the film’s true self trying to break through. Many of the side characters have all the best moments, including a blue Luma (basically a cute, living star) who gets the biggest laughs. Whether or not there was a strict mandate to air on the side of safe, this Mario party could have used an extra bit of edge.

Given all of the ingredients present, I fully expect The Super Mario Bros. Movie to be a monster hit (especially with kids). I’m not at all against this. I only hope this proof of concept serves as motivation to improve upon it the next time out for the sequel, knowing what they are capable of. As it stands, this animated Mario movie effort nails the look but misses out on delivering a more exciting Super Mario World of its own. It’s not quite game over, but there still needs to be more effort to dodge those red shells.

The Super Mario Bros. Movie opens in theaters on April 5, 2023.

Written by
Aaron Neuwirth is a movie fanatic and Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic from Orange County, California. He’s a member of the African American Film Critics Association, the Hollywood Critics Association, the Online Film Critics Society, and the Black Film Critics Circle. As an outgoing person who is always thrilled to discuss movies, he’s also a podcaster who has put far too many hours into published audio content associated with film and television. His work has been published at Variety, We Live Entertainment, Why So Blu, The Young Folks, Firstshowing.net, Screen Rant, and Hi-Def Ninja.

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