Colorful, energetic and empty as a sugar-laden breakfast cereal, The Super Mario Bros. Movie is the kind of kid film that gives kid films a bad reputation. It preys on a younger audiences’ capacity for easy joy, the kind that can be easily filled by bright colors and loud noises, by offering nothing but a solid stream of same.
Because animation powerhouse Illumination knows its youngest viewers won’t care one way or the other if there is more than that and hopes that older viewers coming for nostalgia will feel similar as long as they get the nostalgia, no one can be bothered to offer more than that.
And nostalgia there is a-plenty. Illumination and co-directors Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic have taken the bright colors and deceptively simple constructs of Nintendo’s classic Super Mario Bros. game and reconstructed it in glorious computer animation, missing no opportunity to fill it with Easter eggs and references to both the original game and the specific oeuvre of 1980s Nintendo fun.
From constant musical references to well-remembered game music to a never-ending chorus line of familiar monsters and menaces, The Super Mario Bros. Movie has more references than you can catch in a single viewing, as much due to the unending speed Horvath and Jelenic rush through everything as to the sheer voluminous number of them.
Perhaps out of fear that someone may for a moment be bored if the film does come to a stop, it races through its story in a tidy 90 minutes giving occasional lip service to plot and characterization but mostly trying to just get the next thing going. Young Mario (Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day) are a pair of Brooklyn plumbers attempting to start their own business but not having much luck despite their expertise.
An attempt to stop a massive downtown flood and earn some professional plaudits instead sends the pair through an enchanted drainpipe and into a magical land of mushrooms, turtles and a beautiful princess (Anya Taylor-Joy). Searching for his missing brother, Mario finds himself embroiled in a fight for freedom against the evil Bowser (Jack Black) who has decided he will either marry Peach or destroy her land utterly, whichever comes first.
The game offers legendary design, simultaneously simple and complex, and the filmmakers are clearly fans, taking its strongest elements and amplifying them. The Super Mario Bros. Movie is never less than engaging to look at and Illumination’s animation is superb.
With this option at hand it’s no wonder the filmmakers quickly grew tired of the look and feel of the Mario game and decided to include as many other related games and characters as they could, starting with an extended trip to Donkey Kong Country to attempt to ally with the proud simian (Seth Rogen) in the fight against Bowser.
If there is a core relationship driving The Super Mario Bros. Movie (and that’s a big if) it’s the one between Mario and Donkey Kong; natural adversaries who are nevertheless forced to work together and may even find themselves liking it.
Some of that is a side effect of how long they are on screen together – Mario not only spends more time with Donkey Kong than his theoretical lady love Princess Peach, he spends more time with Donkey Kong than with brother Luigi, who vanishes for half of the film. Maybe it should have been called “The Mario and Kong Movie.”
None of it particularly stretches its performers, but Pratt has found an interesting but workable sound for Mario, high pitched and squeaky like the game but with a distinct Brooklyn accent, one of the few surprises in the film.
Everyone else bounces between sounding like they are reading discrete sentences without anything like context for what they are saying or free reign to sing and create personal story because nothing they say matters. The colors just need to make some sort of sound as they bounce around.
The end result is serviceable but unremarkable, doing the least it needs to in order to keep its audiences’ attention. Individual set pieces have been created and tuned to energetic perfection but without an iota of character attention or stakes. It’s all just fluffy cotton candy, empty calories that don’t feel like they’re as bad for you as they are until your teeth start rotting out of your head.
THE SUPER MARIO BROS. MOVIE REVIEW SCORE: 5 OUT OF 10
The Super Mario Bros. Movie is rated PG for action and mild violence. Universal Pictures will release the film in theaters on Wednesday, April 5.