In 1993, the live-action adaptation of Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros was so hideously chaotic that it led the games giant to largely shun the film industry until 2019’s Detective Pikachu. Instead of a moustachioed, hyperactive Italian plumber hopping across platforms and down pipes, we were presented with a depressive Bob Hoskins trapped in what looked like the rotting set of a Broadway musical production of Blade Runner. At least you couldn’t call it predictable, though. The Super Mario Bros Movie, an animated rendition of the game courtesy of Illumination (aka the Minion people), is nothing more and nothing less than what you’d expect from a Mario film.
Its comfortable mediocrity is no better captured than in its choice to cast Chris Pratt – the current face of generic, easy-to-market heroism – in the starring role. Pratt, it should be said, is perfectly capable of the sort of outsized performance Mario needed, having previously turned in himbos of equal, puppyish élan in The Lego Movie and Guardians of the Galaxy. But the Pratt called upon here is of the blandly sincere, hire-a-hero variety, delivering lines like “let’s-a-go!” and “mamma mia!” with all the vigour of a contractual obligation and not a trace of Italian.
This Mario is a sadsack entrepreneur whose dad doesn’t believe in his “crazy dream” of running an independent plumbing business in Brooklyn. He also feels guilty about dragging down alongside him his brother Luigi (Charlie Day, also very funny in The Lego Movie and wasted here). When they’re both sucked into a magical sewer pipe, which dumps them out in the middle of the magical Mushroom Kingdom, Mario teams up with a self-possessed Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy) and a squeaky-voiced Toad (Keegan-Michael Key) in order to save Luigi from the clutches of the villainous Bowser (Jack Black).
The rest may as well have been written by an algorithm. Peach’s old damsel-in-distress routine has undergone the obvious gender flip. Mario is given a moment of supposed defeat, in which he remembers his brother’s love and storms back into battle, in a scene that would feel more suitable to a film about superheroes rather than plumbers. And the whole thing is soundtracked by composer Brian Tyler’s commendable interpolations of Koji Kondo’s original game score, but also the most obvious popular music cues imaginable. There should have been a moratorium on using Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out for a Hero” after Shrek 2, but here we are.
To the film’s credit, it’s certainly not as dull and self-serious as screenwriter Matthew Fogel’s bare-bones plot suggests. The many, many nods to Mario lore are charmingly staged – koopas and goombas and yoshis, oh my! – and there are some nicely executed sequences, including a Mad Max: Fury Road-inspired take on the popular Mario Kart game. It’s hard to demand all that much from a Mario Bros film when its source material has been historically devoid of plot, but shouldn’t we be allowed to demand a little more than mere competency?
Dir: Aaron Horvath, Michael Jelenic. Starring: Chris Pratt, Anya Taylor-Joy, Charlie Day, Jack Black, Keegan-Michael Key, Seth Rogen. 12, 134 minutes.
‘The Super Mario Bros Movie’ is in cinemas from 5 April
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