The Super Mario Bros Movie review: Gameplay is king

A still of Cat Mario in The Super Mario Bros MovieUniversal Pictures

What do we want from a Super Mario Bros movie? Clearly, not what we got in 1993: a live-action cringe-fest with Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo respectively in the roles of plumbing twins Mario and Luigi, and Dennis Hopper as King Koopa.

Incredible casting, sure – but the film was a box office bob-omb and has been widely derided, setting the benchmark as the first of its kind for a host of limp live-action video game adaptations in its wake. It’s been notoriously difficult to craft a successful one. Here we are 30 years later still struggling to hit on a successful formula (a handful of wins aside). 

Article continues after ad

As is often the case, however, attitudes soften with the passage of time. Of the kids who’ve grown up to remember the film when it was released, many look back on it fondly. It’s a camp curiosity, and it’s of its time.

The 1993 movie is pioneering, even, in terms of its significance in Tinseltown’s transition from practical to digital effects. This all makes for, at the very least, an intriguing chapter in Hollywood’s back catalogue.

Article continues after ad

The Mario Bros return

The damage done, it’s taken three entire decades before a renewed attempt at a movie starring the Italian multipotentialites (if you’ve played the games, you’ll know these guys have more strings to their bows than an expert archer with, um, lots of strings) gears up to hit the screen.

Fast forward to 2023, then, and a fresh bash at creating Mario movie magic is nigh. This time, sidestepping live-action altogether (once bitten and all that) to bring the film closer to its tonal and gameplay roots via an animated offering.

Article continues after ad

Chris Pratt and Charlie Day are on Mario and Luigi duty (not without its own controversy), lending their voices to the titular plumbers. Anya Taylor-Joy brings her succulent tones to Princess Peach. Seth Rogen is a barrel of laughs as Donkey Kong, Jack Black bombastic as Bowser, and Keegan-Michael Key as fun guy (sorry) Toad.  

What’s The Super Mario Bros Movie about?

So, what’s The Super Mario Bros Movie about? Well, the Mario brothers are living in Brooklyn with their extended family when they decide to start their own business in the plumbing trade, and put out a commercial.

Article continues after ad

When the ad attracts a customer, they couldn’t be more delighted. However, the job goes disastrously awry. And so the movie sets up two enthusiastic and endearing – but largely inept – central characters.

Meanwhile, Bowser is exerting his control over in Mushroom World – starting with the Penguin King (Khary Payton) and his people. When circumstances conspire to send Mario and Luigi to the Mushroom Kingdom, so begins an adventure in which the brothers are separated and, well, you can probably guess what happens next. Mario teams up with Princess Peach, Toad, and, yes, Donkey Kong, to save Luigi and stop Bowser. Yada yada yada.

Article continues after ad

Gameplay is king

If that makes it seem as though the film is boring, it isn’t. Predictability is an element of so much movie fare, especially when it’s formula-driven like this. No, there’s enough here to keep entertainment levels up to an adequate level – even if it does cater primarily to the younger market. But adequate means there’s potential here for so much more.

The Super Mario Bros Movie is committed to incorporating in-game elements to give it a gameplay feel, and that’s getting to the nub of its issues. While moments where Mario, Toad, et al are acrobatically negotiating platforms, pipes, and Bullet Bills flow nicely and might give you a cheap thrill, equally, they can feel forced. Especially when you’ve got a coin or other punch box thrown in.

Article continues after ad

This all works more convincingly in animation over live-action, of course, and when it comes to the gameplay aspects, the Mario Kart-inspired racing sequences work best of all. They more naturally transfer to the movie screen. The car chase, after all, is a classic of cinema. We’re reminded sharply, however, of the age-old conundrum of how best to adapt a video game for moviegoers.

The approach here – leaning heavily into the game franchise’s platform and racing elements – can be jarring. It sacrifices narrative immersion for the sake of gimmicks. And anyway, watching these moments is always less thrilling than doing it yourself. When compared to recent video game adaptation winners, the Sonic the Hedgehog films, it’s easy to see where The Super Mario Bros Movie stumbles. And why the Sonics might be the best example to date of movies based on a game that gets the balance right.

Article continues after ad

If music be the food of emotional investment…

The film’s soundtrack nevertheless makes smart use of songs. Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out for a Hero”, A-ha’s “Take on Me”, and AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” (perhaps catering to the parents in the audience) are seeded amongst music and sound effects lifted from the game.

These songs and the accompanying sequences add a sense of cinematic scale and, importantly, fun. In these moments, the action really motors and our emotional investment in the film soars.

Article continues after ad

Acting up a storm

Pratt and Day are perfectly fine as Mario and Luigi, and neatly circumnavigate the Italian accent debate in ways that will become clear when you see the film. Anya Taylor-Joy, too, works. But it’s Jack Black as Bowser who really delivers, issuing a vocal performance that brings something extra to the character. Under Black’s influence, Bowser is odious and narcissistic, yes, but he’s also vulnerable. If you’ve never before wondered what makes Bowser tick, you will now. You’ll immediately want to delve into his backstory.

The character of Princess Peach, meanwhile, pockets a more progressive role than in the games. It’s admirable, and it also works well. She’s switched from the damsel in distress to a resourceful woman of the people. She will protect the Mushroom Kingdom at all costs and takes a lead role in Luigi’s rescue.

Article continues after ad

Keegan-Michael Key makes an enthusiastic Toad, while Seth Rogen voices a Donkey Kong with something to prove, reluctantly aligning with Mario for the greater good. All of these characters have enough about them to warrant spin-offs should the so-called Nintendo Cinematic Universe choose to go down that (Rainbow) road.

A hint of something edgier

Meanwhile, humour is generally light, inoffensive – and also forgettable. The film focuses on plot, tone, and stuffing itself full of game references over proper lols.

That said, the characterisation of Luma specifically is inspired. The blue star-like creature isn’t in it much but speaks to those of us who might tire quickly of the film’s tweeness, imprisoned as Luma is in a cage, apparently suffering an existential crisis.

Article continues after ad

Lines where the little blue floaty guy talks, for example, about the infinite void, feel like they’ve come from a much edgier version of the film. One that many of the adults in the audience would surely love to see. 

The Verdict – Is The Super Mario Bros Movie good?

This is a serviceable animated movie adaptation that is entertaining enough but it won’t set your world alight.

Its focus is on stuffing in gameplay-style sequences that don’t always feel at home in a movie alongside cameos and references designed to please the fans. And while its tone is light and amiable enough, charm and humour take a knock because, simply, it tries too hard to pander. 

Article continues after ad

However, young kids will love its fast-paced story and video game sound and visuals, while there’s the odd touch like the existentially contemplative Luma and Jack Black’s brilliantly morose and sociopathic Bowser that will do it for older audience members.

The Super Mario Bros Movie review score: 3/5

With Easter Eggs and video game references galore, fans of the video games and Nintendo generally will love spotting all the cameos and other nods buried throughout – and there’s just enough here to keep older audiences entertained while the kids have a ball. Wahoo!

Article continues after ad

The Super Mario Bros. Movie is in cinemas now. Check out our other coverage below:

All actors and characters in the voice cast | Will there be a Super Mario Bros. Movie 2? | Post-credits scene explained | Mario’s accent explained | Seth Rogen wants Donkey Kong spinoff | Best Easter Eggs | Chris Pratt’s favorite Mario cheat | Lots of Mario movies planned | Wario and Waluigi voice speculation | How to watch the Mario movie | Jack Black wants Bowser movie | How old is Princess Peach? | Is Yoshi in it?

Article continues after ad