Illumination, Nintendo achieve high score
Difficult not to get swept up into the magic emanating from this charming crowd-pleaser
Thirty years after the nightmare vision of a live-action adaptation, the world’s most popular video game franchise finds new cinematic life through Illumination with The Super Mario Bros. Movie.
As bright and cheery as 1993’s Super Mario Bros. was dank and enigmatic, this franchise kick-starter is designed to appeal to those who have logged hundreds of hours playing Mario games and those who are discovering this world for the first time. With a simple story and cursory characterizations, it’s also a film that’s meant to be extremely palatable to all age groups, much like other Illumination series from Despicable Me to The Secret Life of Pets. But there’s so much care and craft that’s gone into the visual design and musical score alone that it’s difficult not to get swept up into the magic emanating from this charming crowd-pleaser.
Living in Brooklyn, brothers Mario (Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day) are doing what they can to get their fledgling plumbing business off the ground before it goes down the tubes. After seeing a massive mid-city manhole leak on the news, Mario convinces Luigi they’re the ones who can fix it. But as they make their way underground toward the deluge, the brothers get sucked into a large pipe. They get split up to two different areas of a magical world, brave Mario in the vibrant Mushroom Kingdom and timid Luigi in the ominous Dark Lands. Luigi is summarily captured by Bowser (Jack Black) and his army of turtle-like Koopa soldiers, while Mario calls upon Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy) for help in getting he and his brother back home to Brooklyn. Along the way, Mario and Peach recruit the mighty ape Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen) from the Jungle Kingdom in their quest to defeat Bowser.
The most striking aspect of The Super Mario Bros. Movie is not only the bright and stunning animation but how it’s used to create these distinctive areas of this enchanting world. Obviously there are numerous sprawling Mario games from which to draw upon when designing these settings but co-directors Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic focus these influences for one all-encompassing narrative. In a couple key sequences, they cleverly recreate the 2-D side-scrolling nature of the early Mario games and repurpose the light-up blocks and obstacles as part of a Mushroom Kingdom training course. Naturally, there are innumerable references to platform game mainstays like the Fire Flower and Piranha Plants that even those who have never played the games will likely still recognize.
The music of Mario by Koji Kondo is another cultural touchstone that one doesn’t need to be a gamer to recognize and composer Brian Tyler beautifully weaves in leitmotifs from various games throughout the years. In a moment of scheming, Bowser and his adviser Kamek sit together at the piano to duet the “Underworld Theme,” followed by Bowser crooning a hilariously overwrought new song “Peaches.”
Aside from the Kondo music and the original tunes, The Super Mario Bros. Movie also includes some needle drops that aren’t unexpected from an Illumination entertainment but not really necessary either. Between this, the comparatively duller video game-related Tetris and the Shazam! sequel, this is the third release I’ve seen in the past few weeks that interpolates Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out for a Hero.” I can only be grateful it wasn’t in Air as well.
The voice cast isn’t filled with the most inspired choices for every role but the performers do what they need to in order to make the characters feel like they’re sharing this world together. Black brings some heavy metal gusto to his put-upon Bowser that makes him alternately menacing and pathetic, depending on the scene. Day hits his high register for the perpetually nervous Luigi, and Pratt brings an easy confidence to his aplomb older brother. There’s a joke early on about the stereotypical Italian dialects that Pratt and Day chose not to lean on while voicing their characters and where the duo ended up tonally suits the movie just fine.
Hopefully the inevitable sequels will get more ambitious with casting and plot but as a visually and sonic spectacle, The Super Mario Bros. Movie is an accomplished first level that will no doubt have audiences pining for the next one.
New movies coming to theaters this weekend
Renfield, starring Nicholas Hoult and Nicolas Cage, is a horror comedy about Dracula’s beleaguered servant and sidekick, who yearns to get out from under the thumb of his vampiric boss and the bloodshed that his lifestyle seems to accrue.
The Pope’s Exorcist, starring Russell Crowe and Daniel Zovatto, is a supernatural horror film following the chief exorcist of the Vatican as he investigates a young boy’s terrifying possession and ends up uncovering a centuries-old conspiracy in the process.
Sweetwater, starring Everett Osborne and Cary Elwes, is a sports biopic covering the life and career of Hall of Fame basketball player Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, who made history as the first Black player to sign an NBA contract.