We’ll address the elephant in the room first. Yes, Chris Pratt does indeed adopt a stereotypical Italian accent for his voice work as Mario in The Super Mario Bros. Movie. No, it’s actually not as offensive or as wince-inducing as you may be anticipating because, quite ingeniously, the film makes a joke out of the worst inflection people will be expecting.
Without giving away the rather amusing gag that screenwriter Matthew Fogel (Minions: The Rise of Gru) executes towards the beginning of the film, The Super Mario Bros. Movie overcomes any issues audiences may have with its voice cast by actually undoing itself with the most basic of plots, a surprising move that actually separates our titular brothers, and a heavy reliance on Easter eggs and nostalgia for the very game it’s based on.
Now, the latter isn’t exactly the worst additive, as certain music cues, visual imagery and sound effects throughout are sure to trigger the smiles of many a fan of the original video game – this reviewer included – but such service also can’t help but be seen as a shiny distraction. With such a built-in world of possibilities, directors Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic (Teen Titans Go! To the Movies) – no doubt hoping to erase the ambitious live-action film from 1993 from being the theatrical product associated with such a name – are smart enough to lean into the quirks and perks of the game (the Mario Kart sequence is sure to delight), but given that this is also a collaboration with Illumination, the animated studio responsible for unleashing the Minions movies onto an unsuspecting public, it means the younger, unversed crowd are catered to in a manner that means any familiarity with the game doesn’t need to be necessarily met.
The story that is assembled here, one that manages to incorporate a variety of set-pieces that draw direct inspiration from both the Mario and Donkey Kong video game franchises, sees our loveable titular duo, Mario (Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day), off to make a name for themselves in the world of professional plumbing. Their first ever job as solo contractors ultimately sends them on a journey deep into the sewer pipeline system of Brooklyn and, unwillingly, transported to the Mushroom Kingdom, where Bowser (Jack Black), a monstrous, fire-breathing anthropomorphic turtle (your standard villain fare, really), is looking to destroy the Mushroom Kingdom in his quest for (magical under) world domination.
It’s the type of preposterous storytelling that so many animated films have thrived off of, and considering the absolute basicness of the plot of the actual Mario game – one that usually surrounds the saving of perennial damsel-in-distress, Princess Peach – you have to hand it to Fogel for at least coming up with a storyline that (lightly) moves itself coherently from start to finish. Sure, there’s inexplicable sequences of Bowser crooning his heart out for Peach, who he pines for, and the entire set-piece around the introduction of Donkey Kong (an amusing Seth Rogen) is, again, more designed to satisfy experienced players, but there’s conflict created, a through-line to resolution, and enough safe fun to be had along the way.
Whilst some purists may disagree, or worse, cry woke, the update afforded to the character of Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy) is actually one of the film’s strongest ingredients. Quite amusingly it’s Luigi who is essentially painted as the story’s distress-ridden “damsel” when he and Mario are separated early on during their rainbow-assisted world-travel to the Mushroom Kingdom. Mario quite easily accepts his new surroundings (no need for any existential crisis) and Peach’s right-hand, Toad (Keegan-Michael Key), is an amusing embodiment of exposition, leading Mario on the path of glory to claim victory against Bowser and save his brother.
It all basically travels where you expect it to, and it does so in an infectious, optimistic type of way that deems the film ultimately too harmless and joyful to cause concern or offence. It hits all the beats needed to maintain focus, and, if nothing else, it’s an impossibly gorgeous film to look at, with the rendered animation producing some of the most stunning visuals in the Illumination catalogue.
The perfect distraction for families this school holiday season, The Super Mario Bros. Movie, with its “franchise” temperament practically imprinted into its code upon arrival, perhaps plays it too safe on its first level, but secondary tiers – one of which is teased at the very end of the credits – will hopefully make way for further world building and a more confident mentality in not having to submit to fan service.
THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
The Super Mario Bros. Movie is now screening in Australian theatres.