REVIEW: The Super Mario Bros Movie (2023)

Oh, it’s fine.

Universal and Nintendo’s animated collaboration brings the venerable Super Mario Bros videogame series to cinemas for the first time since 1993’s abortive live-action effort starring Bob Hoskins. Directed by Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic (Teen Titans Go) the film presents a mish-mash of popular characters and situations drawn from Nintendo’s long-running franchise of games, animated by Chris Meledandri’s hugely successful studio Illumination (Despicable Me). The film has certainly struck a cord with a mass audience, since its grossed more than half a billion in its first two weeks. The critical response has been less enthusiastic, of course. It is easy to dismiss the critics, since The Super Mario Bros Movie is clearly not made for an adult audience. Going by the pre-teen viewers with whom I watched the film today, it is hitting its target pretty well. Familiar characters behave in familiar ways, and there is a pleasing consistency in watching Mario jump between platforms, Donkey Kong throw barrels, and Luigi cower in fear in a haunted mansion. Bottom line? If you’re a kid who spends half your time on a Nintendo Switch and the other half watching cartoons, there is plenty in Super Mario Bros to satisfy. If you’re the parent of such a kid, who are you to tell them what they should and shouldn’t be enjoying?

Ultimately, however, is it fair to dismiss critical opinion? On the one hand there is a tendency for many film reviewers, critics, and academics to either ignore or underrate children’s cinema. On the other, some of the very best feature films ever made were produced with children in mind. The Super Mario Bros Movie is bright and colourful, wonderfully animated, and amusing in fits and starts, and a perfectly reasonable way to spend 90 minutes entertaining a child during school holiday time. Does it stand up against a children’s classic like The Wizard of Oz, The Dark Crystal, The Lion King, or My Neighbor Totoro? Of course not, but then again how many films do?

As might be expected – mainly because this is almost always the case – the faults lie in the screenplay. It is credited to Matthew Fogel, although like most animated features the storyline was almost certainly developed by committee. It does not adapt an existing story so much as a style and a character set. Mario is one of the most lucrative and widely-known pieces of intellectual property from the past half century, but what actually created his success was innovative gameplay, and not plot or character. There is a pleasing simplicity to Nintendo’s characters, and a valuable superficiality that removes a need to explain a human princess being kidnapped from mushroom people by a fire breathing lizard and a pack of anthropomorphic turtles.

So how do you explain it in a narrative feature? Two choices are clear: either warp the existing characters into a narrative and world that makes some kind of internal sense, or warp a narrative and world to accommodate a disparate set of characters. The 1993 Super Mario Bros movie, which was directed by Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel, definitely took the former approach and that partially led to its commercial failure (the other part being that it is so jaw-droppingly poor that some film enthusiasts are actively trying to bestow it with cult status). Horvath and Jelenic’s take goes the opposite way, and is perfectly satisfied to take the shortest, most superficial routes to justify its string of videogame tribute sequences.

There is a third option: a much more complicated middle route that carefully stitches together disparate elements and instills them with depth and heart. In 1979 James Frawley’s The Muppet Movie managed to take popular variety/sketch series The Muppet Show and establish them for the first time in a real world context. It not only honoured the anarchic humour of the Muppet characters, but successfully wove them into a three-act narrative for the first time and gave them an emotional resonance that their TV escapades never required. Entirely by coincidence I recently rewatched this film, and was struck all over again by just how effectively its key elements were adjusted to shift from one media to another. The care taken in its development and production is why The Muppet Movie is still a five-star masterpiece, and The Super Mario Bros Movie is at best a three-star diversion.

There is clearly a mass audience for whom Mario works, and honestly good for them, and I suspect it works via a pleasing recognition of and nostalgia for the original videogames. When Mario runs along a two-dimensional obstacle course it has a pleasing effect because it reminds us of how great the original Super Mario Bros and its sequel games were. When an army of Koopas descend on the heroes in a frantic kart chase, it reminds us of the fun we have had played against one another in Super Mario Kart, Mario Kart 64, and their various follow-ups. This carefully engineered nostalgia is emphasised by Brian Tyler’s loud, emphatic score that cribs relentlessly (thankfully with on-screen credit) from original games composer Koji Kondo. As a creative work the movie honestly disappoints; it fact it positively flounders. As a carefully engineered piece of corporate IP it is difficult to fault. It is so bright, so energetic, and so completely and cynically manufactured.

The difference between art and commerce is vividly clear in the film’s English language voice cast, which includes Jack Black, Anya Taylor-Joy, and – most divisively – Chris Pratt as the titular Mario. To be clear, no one sounds bad or distracting, but at the same time no one particularly stands out. They have been cast for their names and prestige rather than their talent. They are a dot point on a middle manager’s marketing summary, designed to hook an audience quadrant in to giving the film a chance. The emphasis in casting is not on what works, but what sells.

To be completely honest, it’s not the film itself that disappoints me, but rather Nintendo’s co-production of it. For the past 50 years or so Nintendo has been among the highest echelons of videogame design. Its reputation for quality has been the result of rigorous quality standards. The company has a well-earned reputation for delaying releases until they are in the best possible shape they are in, based on designer (and Mario creator) Shigeru Miyamoto’s oft-quoted claim that ‘a delayed game is eventually good, but a rushed game is forever bad’. When Morton and Jankel’s Super Mario film failed, Nintendo famously pulled any chance of Hollywood adapting their properties on an indefinite basis. That this new attempt even exists is down to a personal encounter between Miyamoto and Meledandri, and their mutual agreement to take another crack at Mario on the big screen. Their end result is certainly more competent, but given the standards of Nintendo the gaming company competent really should be exceptional. Nintendo design and release some of the highest quality games in the world. Given they are listed alongside Universal Pictures on this film, and Miyamoto is a credited producer (not executive or associate – an actual on-the-ground producer), it is on Nintendo’s brand that the film should be just as good.

Given the commercial success here, it’s as good as certain that we will be seeing spin-offs and sequels for many years to come, not to mention similar attempts at The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, and Nintendo’s other key franchises. It seems equally inevitable that they will be very successful and, to put in plainly, not very interesting.

9 thoughts on “REVIEW: The Super Mario Bros Movie (2023)

  1. Did I go and see this movie because Chris Pratt and Jack Black were in it? No I didn’t. I saw it because it was a Mario movie. I’m 44 years old. Am I outside the target audience? Absolutely. Am I alone in my opinion? Not even close. I am a realist though and I had real concerns for this for many of the same reasons as you, video game movies are often very bad. So with some hesitation and my expectations being slightly better than the original Mario Bros movie, I took a chance.

    Here is my assessment of your review. You focus too much on who is in it and why they were cast as well as piddly things like Nintendo being an executive producer … FOR A MARIO MOVIE! Of course they are producers, are you daft? You didn’t like it (oh it’s fine) and you think Nintendo movies are uninteresting. Then stop reviewing my favorite movies! This movie had so many fun Easter eggs specifically designed to call out the great history of Mario that people for generations love. A true Legend of Zelda movie sounds fantastic. A movie adaptation of Metroid could be amazing. You think this movie was meh at best? Look at the audience score. You are a bit out of touch dude.

    We fans want this. and at the end of the day, fans will make this a thing. And if Nintendo doesn’t deliver, that will be one thing. This was an AMAZING movie. And for you to have missed that means you are just another critic who hates movies. Do me a favor and fade into obscurity. You make movie critics look bad.

    1. Honestly it’s great that you enjoyed it, and clearly with box office approaching a billion dollars it’s clear many others do. And as I noted up-front, it’s a perfectly fine movie and does its job. I’m just very surprised that with Nintendo’s huge reputation for quality it wasn’t better.

      And I promise you there isn’t a critic alive that actually hates movies. No one goes into a cinema for two hours actively wanting something to suck. The trick to reading critics is to find the ones who like what you like, and keep reading them.

      1. Here’s the problem with that. Lately critic have been dumping on great movies like this saying it is lackluster for one reason or another and making movies and series fail as a result. I’m not saying that you have to like a movie, but look at the score. 96% audience score says it’s great. In this case, we likely will get a sequel or another in the Nintendo franchises despite critic like you pooping on it. I was being a little facetious about the critics hate movies comment, but I was trying to make a point. I’m tired of seeing movies and series fail as a result of movie critics claiming it isn’t a good movie when the audience says it’s great. I’m also tired of crappy movies getting critical acclaim and succeeding as a result when the audience hates the movie. You happen to be the first “rotten tomato” that I saw and I wanted to see what you wrote. You were surprised the quality wasn’t better? Audience score of 96% disagrees with you there. This is why moviegoers are starting to hate critics. You give our favorite movies crappy reviews. You say it was not the movie that you were disappointed in … BUT YOU ARE REVIEWING THE MOVIES! You say you were upset that it wasn’t higher quality having Nintendo involved. If you actually look at the movie, you will see the opposite is true. Nintendo gave illumination the green light to go with it. Sure they probably had a hand in suggestions as they do. But after the flop that was Mario Bros 1993, can you blame them? Your statement destroys from your review. The actors were picked because of popularity and not talent? I say again, 96% disagree. The voice acting was pretty great. I was unsure how I felt about Jack Black as Bowser, but he pulled it off. All the other voices were great too. Chris Pratt wouldn’t have been my first choice for Mario but he did well enough.

        You weren’t the worst critique of the movie, just the first one I clicked on when trying to find out why the critics hated this movie when the audience loved it. You say that you are happy I enjoyed it, but we still have the issue of criticism destroying the possibilities of the future. Think about wether it delivers to the fans and does a good job at it. The answer is yes it does 100%. This movie doesn’t deserve a low critic score. Anything below a 7 doesn’t make sense. Your critique tells me you weren’t vested in this movie and were already judging it before you sat down to watch it. You were already uninterested before it started. If you are uninterested in a movie, it wasn’t made for you and you shouldn’t criticize it because you will have a skewed view.

      2. Nintendo isn‘t exactly known for publishing games with innovative stories (e.g. mario kart or any super mario bros game). I mean you even mentioned it yourself. Animation-quality wise, the film is undeniably perfect, so clearly you‘re just looking for faults because you think the film is just a cash-grab or a calculated nostalgia trip for fans.

        Elements like carts and parcours, even bowser wanting to marry peach is canon in the super mario universe, why wouldn‘t it be in the film? Putting all these elemenst into one is actually well thought of the writing staff, because they share the same franchise. Of course creating a new concept would be innovative, but doesn‘t really make sense

  2. James: given the film is clearly going to gross in excess of a billion dollars, I don’t think negative critics are having much effect.

  3. I might point out that even though you indicate that the movie is “fine,” so still assigned it a “Rotten” rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

    If the film is truly “fine” (and even very good in some places), I would think that would merit a “Fresh” rating.

    But, then again, I could always be missing something.

    1. RT’s binary rotten/fresh system only takes you so far. It’s why I don’t assign scores or stars to movies in the actual reviews, because I think they’re ultimately unhelpful. This one is a 5/10 film in my opinion, which is therefore “rotten” – but it’s a fair way more enjoyable than a 2/10 movie.

      1. I believe you that you’re not just the target for this movie, which is fine, but that is having you be biased towards the review, hence giving it a bad score. What is sad about it is that when you look for scores online is that your review, will stand out more than others. Even if is just subjective like in this case.

  4. Couldn’t the super-fans here accept the fact that some peoples might criticize this movie without being monstruous being? This is getting ridiculous. None of you actually adress actual elements of the critic made here. Instead, you are complaining about the fact that a “child movie” shouldn’t be badly rated, because it is for children… What a laughable argument when you consider the diversity of Pixar, Ghibli and other “kids movies” that actually can adress grown-up problematics and create somptuous setting without burrying themselves in non-ending goofiness, nor by throwing cultural references at the face of the spectator for an hour and half.

    The movie has some great ideas, but is so fast-paced and willing to show us his comitment to the video-game that it ends up being disappointing. The kart-centric Kong society, the struggling Mario Brothers and their relationship with their family and themselves, the antagonistic relationship between Mario and Donkey-Kong, the hopeless love of Bowser for Peach, the exploration and wonder one could have discovering this strange, new world… So many possibilities that could have been deepened to create a tounching movie, but who were ultimately left-away, because we absolutely have to show everything from the game in a short amount of time, and all of it shall be goofy as hell!

    And no. We fans don’t want this. Don’t pretend you can speak for a whole base of player while dismissing the critics as exogenous to this same player-base. I myself are fond of the Mario Galaxy franchise and the Mario&Luigi RPG franchise. I have played numerous game from Super Mario Bros to Mario 64, to Mario Party, and so on. Yet, I still consider that a movie have to be a movie, not a fan-service mess deep as a puddle.

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