The entertainment industry is a fickle beast, with tent pole franchises and sequels keeping the entire theatrical industry afloat with the hope that the hits are huge and underwrite everything else. So, it's somewhat of a surprise that it's taken Nintendo 30 years to exploit their hit video game franchise Super Mario Bros. on the big screen again, following the 1993 live-action bomb, which is only now starting to be critically re-appraised (but more on that later). But burned by their first attempt, it's perhaps taken this long for Nintendo to be comfortable with partnering with Hollywood again.
While the infamous Sony hack revealed that executives were aggressively courting Nintendo for a deal that never eventuated, it appears they found the perfect partner in French CG animation studio Illumination, landing a favorable deal that allegedly includes the IP rights residing with the Japanese video game studio, along with - most importantly - full creative control. So how does that all fare? Well, in typical Nintendo fashion - entertaining, fan-pleasing, breezy, and... incredibly safe.
While attending a plumbing job, the plucky Brooklyn-based duo Mario (Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day) discover a mysterious green pipe that transports them to two other-worldly locations. When Mario is sent to the friendly Mushroom Kingdom ruled by Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Luigi to King Bowser's (Jack Black) sinister dark lands, the plumbers (and some other familiar friends along the way) are co-opted on the mission to prevent Bowser's planned takeover of the Mushroom Kingdom.
The casting of Hollywood heavies such as Chris Pratt, Jack Black, and Seth Rogen took up much of the pre-release conjecture, with most dubiousness reserved for the former. Still, for the most part, they are totally fine in the respective roles (and in the case of Jack Black, rather well), and they've at least acknowledged the changes in some clever dialogue.
As much as I miss Charles Martinet's faux-Italian accent, the reality is that it just wouldn't have worked for a 90-minute movie. However, it's not hard to imagine that he (or, ideally, a lesser-named, professional voice-over artist) couldn't have come up with something a little more impressive.
Much like the warm, nostalgic familiarity of the video games, which is part of the ongoing success of the gaming series after all these years, it's entirely unsurprising that the video game adaptation would lean into the formula and build on the lore rather than re-write it. Moreover, The Super Mario Bros. Movie unapologetically bends over backward to please fans, littering every frame with references to over 35 years of history and even a tip of the hat to the early 1990s Saturday morning cartoon series.
Unlike the subversive 1993 live-action film, the 2023 film actively avoids stepping outside anything close to the bounds of expectation, delivering a kid and adult-friendly film that breezily entertains during its short runtime.
In the crucial opening few weeks of box office, audiences around the world have voted with their wallets and embraced the film to the tune of nearly a billion dollars, ensuring that multiple sequels and spin-offs are not so much likely, but guaranteed. Indeed, the film's closing moments promise as much, with the familiar voice of a fan-favorite character giving more than a subtle hint as to who'll be joining the cast next time.
For a long-time fan like me, The Super Mario Bros. Movie ticks all the boxes and does everything it meant to do. However, the product of this is a rather pedestrian film that offers few surprises, no real vision, and kind of just makes me want to play the games. Perhaps that was Nintendo's aim, after all.