The Ultimate Bonus Level – The Super Mario Bros. Movie

A programming note before I get started. The blog is going on a little bit of a hiatus for reasons that will become apparent very quickly. I’ll be stepping aside for a couple of weeks, during which time I have no plans to see any new movies or post any content. It’s my hope to be back up and running by the first of May. So if you find yourself missing my shit, fear not, I will be back as soon as I’m able. I just have a lot to sort out for the time being. I thank you all in advance for bearing with me.

I’ve shared the story before about how I got my first Nintendo as my personal Christmas miracle when I was six. I’ve also told you all about the 30-year-old mistake I made in seeing the 1993 Super Mario Bros. movie instead of Jurassic Park. Part of it was that I just plain chickened out at the moment of truth, but there was a weird, pseudo logic in my decision. For one thing, a few months prior I had nagged my mom to rent the Terminator movies from Blockbuster, because not knowing the content, only that there were toys marketed directly to kids, I figured they were okay for a 10-year-old. When she finally relented, I asked her to put them back, as I now knew they were R-rated, and I wanted to show that I was responsible for my age, willing to trust in the rules that said they weren’t appropriate for me. That also informed my decision to opt for the PG Mario rather than the PG-13 Jurassic.

But also, ever since I got that Nintendo, I wanted to make sure that the gift was never given in vain, so I played my heart out, doing everything I could to get better and better. I wanted to impress my mom with my skills, and prove that I was worthy of Santa coming through for me. The first time I beat Super Mario Bros. was a watershed moment of my childhood. A couple years later, I beat Super Mario Bros. 3 without using warp whistles or continues, accumulating enough extra lives to play the whole game through over the course of seven hours. The Nintendo was hooked up to my mom’s TV in her bedroom, so I had to commandeer her room for an entire Saturday to get it done, and she just watched in awe, encouraging me as I got closer to the end. So that thought of winning responsibly also lingered in my head as I made my choice at the multiplex back in 1993.

My mother died this past Friday afternoon after a three-year battle with dementia. She passed while I was in the theatre watching The Super Mario Bros. Movie, made by Illumination Animation Studio in close collaboration with Nintendo, to the point that Shigeru Miyamoto himself is listed as Executive Producer. I had been informed earlier in the day that she wasn’t going to last much longer, as she had been rapidly declining ever since an injury the week before. I knew there was a very good chance that she would shuffle off the mortal coil while I was watching, and I went with that exact scenario in mind. My sister and nephew had gotten a chance to say goodbye a couple hours before it happened, but there was no chance that I, being 3,000 miles away, was going to get that opportunity. So I went to the movie, partially to clear my head, but also to say my goodbyes in my own way.

Because in addition to all the wonderful memories I’ll have of her, my mom loved going to the movies with me. Whenever I was home from college or taking time off from work to visit, we always made a point to see something and analyze it to death afterwards. In a way, she’s the reason I do this blog and all the other obsessive movie things I do. The most special of those outings was to see Elijah Wood’s 2005 visual opus, Everything Is Illuminated, which quickly became one of her all-time favorites. So what better way to emotionally bid her farewell than to sit down in a cinema, have a few laughs at the franchise that gave us so many great moments together, and send whatever message I could to her in the great beyond that I was going to be okay?

Thankfully, the movie itself was stupendous, so this didn’t turn into a bittersweet exercise in irony.

There were a lot of ways that this movie could have completely flopped. It could have ignored nearly 40 years of character development, game canon, and internal logic like the 1993 film did, and just slapped a red and green coat of paint on a completely nonsensical story that had nothing to do with the franchise apart from references and name drops. It could have tried too hard to adapt the plot of one specific game, getting too bogged down into the minutiae like so many other video game films over the years. Given that it was being produced by Illumination, the whole affair could have been a series of tired, Minion-esque buffoonery and fart jokes. Early reactions to the first teasers and the casting of Chris Pratt in the lead role were decidedly skeptical, if not outright mocking. There were more potential pitfalls than the actual Pitfall video game.

Despite all this, the picture not only sticks the landing, it does so spectacularly, hardly ever missing the mark. There are a few trite moments to be sure, but given how easily things could have gone wrong, it’s amazing how much they got right.

The first perfectly correct decision is in the story itself. Rather than trying to slap an established game onto the big screen, the writers crafted an original story that employs all the key elements of the mythos. The film opens with a scene we’ve all seen from the first full trailer, with Bowser (an absolutely perfect Jack Black, right down to the Tenacious D-style ballad he performs midway through) conquering the penguin-led Ice Kingdom and seizing the Super Star, which will grant him invincibility just like in the game. He plans to use the star to take over the Mushroom Kingdom, not to destroy it (as he tells his underlings), but to rule together with Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy, another exquisite casting, as she’s basically live-action Peach already) if she agrees to marry him. The idea of Bowser coveting Peach romantically is a recurring theme, especially in the 3D games in the series, like Super Mario Sunshine and Super Mario Odyssey, so the various nods work exactly as intended.

Secondly, we deal with Mario’s voice. In Brooklyn, New York, we see Mario (Pratt) and his brother Luigi (Charlie Day) doing a local commercial for their plumbing business in exaggerated Italian accents like those we normally hear in the games provided by Charles Martinet (in something of an audial cameo, Martinet plays their father), before cutting back to the “real” world and having Pratt’s Mario concede that it was just a gimmick to get the audience’s attention. That’s a bit too convenient of a hand-wave, and it’s much more for the adults in the crowd than the kids, but honestly, I’m okay with it. We all knew Pratt couldn’t pull off the voice convincingly, so the film created a believable, if contrived, way around it.

While exploring the sewers underground, trying to aid the city in fixing a water main break, Luigi looks into a strange, green pipe, and is sucked into the video game world we all know and love. Mario follows, but the pair are separated, with the timid Luigi landing in Bowser’s Dark Land and Mario arriving in the Mushroom Kingdom, where he meets Toad (a gloriously hyperactive Keegan-Michael Key) and volunteers to help Peach recruit the Kong Army from the Jungle Kingdom (ruled over by Fred Armisen as Cranky Kong and Seth Rogen as Donkey Kong) to aid in fighting Bowser and rescuing Luigi.

This is another brilliant choice when it comes to the story. In the vast majority of Mario games, Peach is the damsel in distress. It’s been that way ever since we were told that the princess was in another castle. But the writers correctly deduced that, as a fleshed out origin story for a cinematic franchise, Mario has no real plot motivation to rescue Peach from Bowser. They have no relationship whatsoever when this starts. He does, however, have a lifelong bond with Luigi. So to have him be in peril makes a lot more sense. It gives Mario a reason for his journey, and it allows Peach to have more agency than she ever has before (and it also lets me fall more in love with Anya Taylor-Joy than I already was).

Once the framework is firmly established, THEN we can go full throttle with the jokes, references, and Easter Eggs, because we as a viewing audience are invested in the story and engaged enough with the possibilities to pay more attention to all the fun stuff on the periphery, from Pauline being the mayor of New York, to a Donkey Kong lookalike arcade game called Jumpman (which was Mario’s original name), to an absolutely hilarious dark running gag from a despondent Luma who’s been driven mad by his imprisonment, gleefully yearning for the sweet release of death. By the time we get to a Mad Max-style chase scene on karts set on Rainbow Road, any chance I had of hating this was completely gone.

Moreover, this is just a really well-made animated film. The story throws a lot at you, but the plot is overall fairly straightforward, so while it’s bright and flashy, it’s still quite easy to follow, even for the youngest viewers. The quality of the animation is arguably the best Illumination has ever put up, cleverly playing with light and shadow to give these classic characters previously unseen dimensions, to say nothing of the moment when Peach goes full Elsa and makes me swoon even more. And in a true miracle, THERE ARE NO FART JOKES! I may have zoned out due to euphoria, but I’m fairly certain on this point. The closest thing we got to toilet humor was an early scene where the brothers are literally fixing a toilet in their professional capacity as plumbers, and a quick gag late where an undersea eel burps up two of our heroes. I’d never have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes.

The movie does have a couple of shortfalls here and there, but they’re pretty minor. While Luigi has always been depicted as the less brave of the title pair (if you’ve ever played Luigi’s Mansion, for example, you know what I’m talking about), there were a few too many moments where he’s just full-on scaredy-cat, and depending on your level of tolerance, that might border on grating. There are rumors out there that a lot of orchestral movements and musical cues that updated certain themes were replaced with needle drop tracks (Mario trains on his first “level” to “Holding Out for a Hero,” for example), which is kind of lame, but at least they’re timed out well enough that the catalog songs don’t feel too out of place. There are a few major characters from the franchise who are missing, and only one of them is teased for a potential sequel (one that I’m sure will happen, given that this beat Frozen II for the highest opening gross of any animated movie). And maybe I’m just a nostalgic goofball, but I would have loved a cameo from John Leguizamo just as a brief acknowledgement of the first movie, which did suck massively, but still has camp value.

But on the whole, this was a rousing success, delivering exactly what it promised at a fairly high level throughout. It could have gone so wrong so quickly, but instead the time was taken to make sure it was done properly, and while there will be plenty to nitpick as time goes on, the concept worked better than anyone could have reasonably imagined.

As I said earlier, my mom used to love watching me play Mario games. She could see how my focus was improving as I made incremental progress, and she shared in my joy when I emerged victorious at last, overcoming the obstacles that Miyamoto and others had laid before me. She got a satisfaction out of seeing me beat the games that I didn’t really understand as a child, but I think I do now. She was seeing her child win, something every parent wants to see. And during my formative years, real-life wins were few and far between. Maybe I’m being too sentimental, but I think those moments let her know that I was going to be okay in the end, that I could rise to the challenge when needed and come out on top.

That’s why I went to the movies knowing she was about to go. That’s why I went to THIS movie knowing she was about to go. In a way, it was one last victory, one last moment of pure bliss, that we could share together, harkening back to those long Saturdays in her bedroom as I hoarded the TV trying to smash just one more Goomba or dodge just one more fireball. I’m back in New York now, making the preparations to lay her to a well-earned rest, and I will say my last goodbyes through what I’m sure will be a deluge of tears. But during the weeks that I’m here, I will take the first step in carrying on her legacy. My nephew Teddy is four years old now, and he’s never been to the movies. That will change in this period of mourning, and this will be his first. He will learn the love of film that his mother, father, uncle, and grandmother all share, to coincide with a love of Mario (he has Mario Kart track toys) that he already has. And in the midst of our grief, we will find the joy, and we will be okay.

Grade: A-

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next… you know, once I’m ready to do so? How does this movie stack up with other video game adaptations? What’s your favorite power-up? Let me know!

3 thoughts on “The Ultimate Bonus Level – The Super Mario Bros. Movie

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