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The iconic characters have a swell time just being themselves in The Super Mario Bros. Movie. Photo courtesy of Illumination and Universal studios.

When The Last of Us became a critical and commercial hit, it was easy to see why: The filmmakers adapted one of gaming’s most acclaimed entries. For The Super Mario Bros. Movie, Illumination Studios also adapted another beloved gaming series, possibly the most beloved, but while The Last of Us had a deep story, complex characters, and thrilling gameplay, the Super Mario series has basic stories and simple though iconic characters used to set up great gameplay. Therein lies the issue: It was The Last of Us’ story, not gameplay, that was adapted. The question is, “How could something like Super Mario Bros. be adapted in a way that’s faithful to the source material while also transitioning from a gameplay-based medium to a narrative-based one?” The answer is to let the iconic characters be themselves and have a lightweight story to set up thrilling and colorful on-screen action with a little heart thrown in.

As in the 1980s cartoon show, Mario and Luigi (Chris Pratt and Charlie Day) are brothers and plumbers from Brooklyn who stumble upon a warp pipe and end up in the fantastical Mushroom Kingdom. Well, Mario does. Luigi finds himself getting kidnapped by dinosaurian-turtle dictator Bowser (Jack Black), who has recently found a legendary object that will give him unprecedented power. To rescue his brother, Mario turns to the Mushroom Kingdom’s ruler, Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy), who has a plan to unite the local fantasy kingdoms, including that of Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen), to stop Bowser.

If that sounds pretty much like the standard Mario plot, it is, albeit with Luigi being the one in need of rescuing instead of the princess, but it’s also a good excuse to let the characters be their iconic selves. Mario is still Mario, good-hearted and ready to fight the good fight, and his relationship with Luigi is really the heart of the film. The characters aren’t getting a deeper reinvention here because they really don’t need it. There are attempts at a little more depth, such as Mario needing to prove himself to his family, but these scenes are generally surface-level thin and primarily serve to get the story moving.

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But that’s not a bad thing. Again, the series is known more for excellent gameplay than story (entries like Super Mario Galaxy aside), so why should the movie be any different? It would have been nice if the attempts at depth were more successful, but does anybody expect, or really want, a Super Mario Bros. movie to handle deep, complex themes or be a dark and gritty reinvention of the story? Basically, you want a colorful, fun time with these beloved characters, and the movie really delivers.

An early, platforming game-like scene of the brothers racing across Brooklyn sets the stage for what’s to come, as it feels like the movie is playing a big-screen version of the game but in a good, entertaining way. It’s as beautifully animated as any Mario game, and the movie even includes things like power-ups and floating platforms, thankfully without the need to try to explain or rationalize them all beyond the fantasy world setting. There’s plenty of great set pieces, but the standout has to be the kart race on Rainbow Road, which is like a mix of your average chaotic match of Mario Kart with Mad Max: Fury Road.

The star-studded cast really does shine in their performances. Pratt’s Mario is a nice mix of Charles Martinet’s classic higher pitch from the video games and Lou Albano’s brusque Brooklyn accent from the cartoon series. Taylor-Joy’s Peach is regal yet kind, and Day’s Luigi is hilariously frightened by most of the monstrous weirdness of the lands. The best turn comes from Black as Bowser. He gives the Koopa king more than enough gruff menace and, when his full plans and goals are revealed, plenty of laughs. And, yes, he has a song, and it’s a doozy.

Aside from the basic story being on the simpler side, the only major complaint is that Bowser and Mario’s rivalry could have used more fleshing out, and people who are unfamiliar with the series are going to be left out on a lot of the references. Those in the know, of course, are going to have a very good time. Oh, and, yes, this is much, much better than, if not as fascinatingly strange as, the live action 1993 movie.

Photo courtesy of Illumination and Universal studios.

 

The Super Mario Bros. Movie
Starring Chris Pratt, Anya Taylor-Joy, Jack Black, and Charlie Day. Directed by Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic. Screenplay by Matthew Fogel. Rated PG.

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