8/10 The Super Mario Bros. Movie is a manmade horror beyond my comprehension – not as an assessment of quality, but as a fact about its nature. As far as man-made horrors go, it’s pretty high-quality.
Brooklyn- Mario and Luigi (Chris Pratt and Charlie Day) struggle to start a plumbing business out of a cramped New York apartment with their extended family of first-generation Italian immigrants. The brothers rush to the scene of a water main break, hoping to seize a chance to save Brooklyn, but they descend deeper and deeper into the sewer in search of the break and are eventually sucked into a warp pipe. The pair are thrust into a brewing war as the evil Koopa king Bowser (Jack Black), who rules the Dark Lands, is launching an invasion of all local territories in order to win the heart of the Mushroom Kingdom’s ruler, Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy).
The movie begs a lot of questions about its own existence, but it begs them by demonstrating a lot of really solid answers. Maybe they aren’t the right answers, but there’s a consistent, observable thought process behind this movie.
What do we want from a video game movie? The Super Mario Bros. Movie has answers. The film is the visual story of Mario learning how to play several of the games he leads while building a wonderfully three-dimensional world out of the gameplay details. Peach’s kingdom, for instance, is a compact metropolis of pipes with the mushroom power-ups, vital to Mario in the games and used tactically in the film, incorporated as everyday-use substances. In zoom-outs of the larger world, you can see all at once the game map it’s derived from, a kaleidoscope of transparent sequel offerings a-la Space Jam: A New Legacy’s galaxy of HBOmax properties and a useful, easy-to-digest map of what’s going on in the movie that puts everything in context really quickly.
Directors Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic adopt the visual language of the Mario games, starting right from their first plumbing job in Brooklyn when Mario has to navigate a street closed for construction. The scene is drawn from a perpendicular angle, recreating the original game’s side-scrolling action. Other obstacle courses evolve the camerawork and bring you more inside Mario’s perspective, but that’s the baseline the film establishes and builds on.
What do we want from animation in general? Again, The Super Mario Bros. Movie has answers. The film takes full advantage of its total lack of reality to create a joyfully cartoonish film. The backgrounds are clean, the images are easy to digest and the camera swoops and flies in perfect position, maintaining a ton of energy in the generous helping of action scenes.
A small bit of brilliance, and this may actually be the most important thing in the movie, is its direct use of video game design elements. That may seem intuitive, but it’s very out-of-the-ordinary – film adaptations usually mean design adaptations, because movies and video games have very different design considerations. Video game elements need to be clean, smooth and large enough to be seen clearly enough to make quick tactical decisions on a television that might be very small and very far away. Movies, on the other hand, often need to sew every element into a realistic world and can benefit intricate designs with close-ups.
I remember being sad when the voice cast was announced to learn that the film would be animated, because this is a spectacular cast. Pratt and Day are master stooges who would play an exceptional Mario and Luigi, but they’d never be able to show that from a soundstage. Taylor-Joy and Black manage to be great with only their voices, aided by Bowser’s musical numbers, but Pratt, Day and such talents as Seth Rogen and Keegan-Michael Key are barely recognizable.
There was also a discussion about racial equitability – Mario and Luigi are Italian-American, and Pratt and Day don’t fit that conception, though Day does have Italian immigrants in his background. I wasn’t really sure at the time if they were being looked at according to the American construction of “white” or the Japanese conception of Italians or Americans, but now the movie’s out, and here they are with their entire family of enormous, balding, thick-mustached Italians cramped into a Brooklyn apartment scooping spaghetti out of a serving dish. This family is in the middle of a very specific, recognizable 20th century immigration story, and it’s really weird to hear these naturalized American accents coming out of their mouths. It’s also weird to see them with smartphones, given that the immigration wave that inspired this ended decades ago, so maybe they weren’t putting that much thought into it.
Illumination Studios is 15 years old now, and there’s a generation of kids who’ve grown up with the animation studio the same way I grew up with Disney Pixar, and the contrast, the way Illumination has built itself for this era of filmmaking in many specific ways Pixar did not, is really illustrative. You could almost point to the handoff from Toy Story 3, the capstone on Pixar’s first film from a studio that had otherwise refused to make sequels, released June 18, 2010, to Despicable Me, Illumination’s debut and continuing icon released July 9, 2010. The studio was born in the early ‘10s at the dawn of intellectual property’s absolute dominance at the box office, and that’s reflected in its evolution. There are five Despicable Me movies with a sixth scheduled for next July, and they’ve got two other part 3’s in development.
It’s thought the ability of Despicable Me’s wordless slapstick to translate across cultures has been critical to the studio’s rise in a quickly globalizing film market, and everything they’ve produced has fallen carefully within certain crowd-pleasing lines. They’ve got a couple of talking animals series and two Dr. Seuss adaptations, and The Super Mario Bros. Movie is the first foray into full-on action.
What do we want from animated video game movies? Separate from the art theory it offers as answers within the runtime, The Super Mario Bros. Movie clearly is the answer to this question. The movie opened at an astonishing $166.5 million over the long Easter weekend, the biggest opening of 2023 so far – Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania is a distant second at $120.4 million over the long Presidents’ Day weekend, and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 came in at $118.4 million.
A lot has to go right for a movie to make $1 billion, and a lot went right for Mario. The movie slides in at the no. 30 all-time opening at the domestic box office and held extremely well, with the no. 7 all-time second and third weekends and no. 6 all-time fourth weekend. People really, really wanted this movie to happen, audiences really liked it and, crucially, it found a real soft spot in the release schedule, as nothing else of note came out for the entire month of April. Evil Dead Rise was the only other April release to open at more than $10 million.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie has already passed Minions as Illumination Studios’ top-grossing film. With not only that kind of financial performance but widespread fan satisfaction and even soft approval of film snobs like me, we’re going to be seeing a lot of Super Mario Bros. Movies going forward, and I can’t complain. They’ve cracked video game movies in a way that looks repeatable and that I really enjoyed.
Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at email@example.com.