The Super Mario Bros. Movie Review: Not So Much A Film As It Is A Checklist Of Video Game References

[I]t functions more like a checklist of nods to the games than a narrative feature.

Mario Kart sequence in The Super Mario Bros.
(Image: © Universal Pictures)

I am fully aware that I am not part of the primary target audience for Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic's The Super Mario Bros. Movie. While I am a casual fan of the video game on which the new animated feature is based, this is a film that is directly targeted at pre-teens and children, and that's an age range that isn't going to be watching it for story development and its arcs; they're going to see it for all of the pretty colors and familiar characters. Kids aren't going to care that it's an exercise to fit as many franchise references as possible into a 92-minute runtime, and they aren't going to mind the fact that its soundtrack is mind-bogglingly generic because they haven't seen the thousands of other Hollywood productions that have used the same songs.

The Super Mario Bros. Movie

Anya Taylor Joy's Princess Peach in The Super Mario Bros. Movie

(Image credit: Universal Pictures)

Release Date: April 5, 2023
Directed By: Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic
Written By: Matthew Fogel
Starring: Chris Pratt, Charlie Day, Anya Taylor-Joy, Jack Black, Keegan-Michael Key, Seth Rogen and Fred Armisen
Rating: PG for action and mild violence
Runtime: 92 minutes

I am very clearly not a movie-goer who is being aimed at with this one – but I am a professional film critic who has been assigned the task of reviewing The Super Mario Bros. Movie with a subjective opinion. And in that capacity, I can say that I'm shocked by just how terrible this effort is: a new Nintendo cinematic embarrassment for a generation that isn't old enough to remember/know about 1993's live-action Super Mario Bros. It's pleasant to look at, with animators directly translating the wonderful aesthetics of the source material to the big screen, but it fails to exercise even one inventive or clever idea. Instead, it functions more like a checklist of nods to the games than a narrative feature.

Attempting to craft a kind of origin story for the franchise, screenwriter Matthew Fogel's script introduces Mario (Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day) as siblings living in Brooklyn, New York who have recently quit their jobs to start their own plumbing company. They are seen as jokes and disappointments by their family and friends, motivating them to try and prove themselves, and when they learn about massive flooding in their area, they attempt to take action. While in the sewer system, however, they end up both getting sucked into a strange green pipe and transported through the Warp Zone – with Luigi ending up a prisoner of the conquest-hungry Bowser (Jack Black) and Mario landing in the fantastical Mushroom Kingdom.

With the help of a diminutive new friend named Toad (Keegan-Michael Key), Mario seeks the assistance of Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy) to try and find his brother, and while doing so he gets wrapped up in the conflict with Bowser – who is very slowly making his way to the Mushroom Kingdom in hopes of winning Peach's heart and impressing her with his possession of the Super Star.

The Super Mario Bros. Movie's roster of heroes and villains are all one-dimensional and bland.

Given that titles within the Mario franchise tend to be more focused on puzzles and games, the filmmakers behind The Super Mario Bros. Movie certainly had their work cut out for them trying to develop a story and character personalities for the feature, but the end result doesn’t exactly showcase a great deal of effort, as everything and everyone is one-dimensional. The heroes and villains each possess a single personality trait that they ride for the duration, and the plot offers zero opportunities for any of them to emotionally grow or change. The most egregious examples of this are Princess Peach shedding the “damsel in distress” persona to simply become a hyper-bland “strong female lead;” Seth Rogen’s Donkey Kong being nothing more than an obnoxious bully; and Bowser spending a surprising percentage of his screen time sitting at a piano crooning about “Peaches,” but it’s a universal problem.

The story doesn’t offer opportunity for the characters to change and be interesting because that’s not part of the movie’s prerogative. It doesn’t progress and set up scenes to develop a meaningful story because it’s clear that the exclusive goal is to find ways to jam in different set pieces reminiscent of the different Mario games: Peach tests Mario’s mettle by setting up a course similar to one found in the original Super Mario Bros. game (backed by a groan-worthy use of Bonnie Tyler's "I Need A Hero"), the protagonists become allies with the Kong army via a round of Super Smash Bros., and then AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” blares as the characters design a collection of personalized vehicles a la Mario Kart. It’s hollow, creatively bankrupt and an experience akin to sitting on the couch bored while your friends hog the controllers.

While Keegan-Michael Key makes an effort, Chris Pratt and the rest of the cast just sound like themselves playing Mario characters.

The shallowness of the enterprise is only further emphasized by the movie’s A-lister-stuffed cast. Keegan-Michael Key gets some special credit for making an effort to create a voice for Toad that is wholly unlike how he normally sounds, but the same can’t be said of the rest of the stars – and the film even makes a point of rubbing this fact in the audiences’ face. The introduction to the titular characters in The Super Mario Bros. Movie is via a commercial for their new plumbing business where they are featured using voices actually reminiscent of their video game counterparts… but then the action pulls back and we meet a very Chris Pratt and Charlie Day-sounding Mario and Luigi who question if their accents are too much in the TV spot.

Across the board, it’s as though the studio was afraid that the film wasn’t getting its money’s worth from the popular talent enlisted and insisted that the actors tone things done so that their voices could be recognized. That may sound extremely cynical, but it’s an attitude purely inspired by the vibes of the work.

The Super Mario Bros. Movie looks great, but there's a cap on the praise that can be offered.

Illumination Entertainment has certainly made a film that looks great in The Super Mario Bros. Movie… but there isn’t too much praise to offer given that there isn’t a great deal of creation; it's innovation instead of invention, and even that is a bit generous. Children will undoubtedly love it, and it will have them all demanding video games, toys and all varieties of ephemera until the next big fad arrives, but anyone who watches it with even a slightly critical eye will recognize it for the empty IP vessel that it is.

Eric Eisenberg
Assistant Managing Editor

Eric Eisenberg is the Assistant Managing Editor at CinemaBlend. After graduating Boston University and earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism, he took a part-time job as a staff writer for CinemaBlend, and after six months was offered the opportunity to move to Los Angeles and take on a newly created West Coast Editor position. Over a decade later, he's continuing to advance his interests and expertise. In addition to conducting filmmaker interviews and contributing to the news and feature content of the site, Eric also oversees the Movie Reviews section, writes the the weekend box office report (published Sundays), and is the site's resident Stephen King expert. He has two King-related columns.