Super Mario Brothers was the first and last video game I ever passed. I was never much of a
gamer, but for a brief window in the malaise of junior high school, I got good enough at
Nintendo’s signature game that I was able to pass it with a single life.
That’s probably the biggest reason I was interested in seeing Illumination’s new “Super Mario
Brothers,” a multicolor animated adventure that works well as a tribute to its original source
material even if it doesn’t inspire the imagination the way the game did all those decades ago.
The plot is a rough approximation of the game itself. A pair of Italian plumbers get sucked into
an alternate world where they have to fight an army of turtles in order to save a princess from a
giant villainous turtle.
The story opens in New York City, where a pair of brothers named Mario (voiced by Chris Pratt)
and Luigi (Charlie Day) are struggling to start their own plumbing business. Their first hired job
goes disastrously wrong, but undeterred, they respond to a broken main in one of the boroughs
and wind up getting sucked into the Mushroom Kingdom when they fall down the wrong sewer
The brothers arrive in the middle of a conflict between a megalomaniacal turtle monster named
Bowser (Jack Black) and the heroic Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy), who is fighting to keep her
kingdom free of Bowser’s tyrannical hand (or shell?). In an amusing twist, Bowser also harbors a
misguided infatuation for the princess, and thinks they have real romantic potential.
Mario and Luigi are separated when they arrive—Luigi falling prisoner to Bowser while Mario
meets the princess and starts to train for battle against the turtle armies. This training sequence
is the closest “Super Mario Brothers” gets to replicating the original game, taking Mario
through an obstacle course that recreates most of the original obstacles, down to what I always
thought were giant snapping Venus Flytraps, though they seem to have a more metal
But the film also seeks to pay tribute to the other Mario games and spinoffs, most notably
Mario Kart, as Mario and co.—including a newly recruited Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen)—get into
a dramatic chase on a brilliantly colored rainbow highway.
There’s plenty here to keep longtime fans happy, including subtle musical nods to the game’s
original soundtrack. But the story doesn’t offer much in terms of surprises, and though the end
result is far from bad, it definitely feels safe. That alone may be good news for longtime fans
still bewildered by the bizarre 1993 live-action film, but in the long run audiences may still wish
for a more inspiring take on the most iconic Nintendo game in the company’s run.
Part of the problem is the same issue that plagues every attempt to translate a beloved game
franchise to the big screen. No matter the budget or the cast or the fancy effects, you are fundamentally turning an active experience (gaming) into a passive experience (watching a movie), and whether audiences realize it or not, the film is never going to engage them in the same way.
The key, then, may be expectations. As a lighthearted if predictable bit of animated fun for the
family, “Super Mario Brothers” will do the job. But it lacks the personality and originality of
better animated offerings like “The Lego Movie,” and while it may remind fans like me of the fun they
had playing the original game, it won’t quite capture their imaginations the same way.
“Super Mario Brothers” is rated PG for animated mayhem and action violence.