Thursday, January 18, 2024

Another castle


Directed by Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic
Written by Matthew Fogel

Spoilers: moderate

For all its brightly-lit, candy-colored splendor, The Super Mario Bros. Movie cowers in darkness, trapped in the shadow of a thirty year old failure.  It makes not one single decision of its own, except in reference to 1993's Super Mario Bros., the first serious effort by American film studios to adapt a video game, and while by no means the last until now, I suppose it's fair to say it at least set the tone for that "genre" for the next decade or two.  The infamy of its predecessorborn from the contemptuous and fascinatingly self-destructive unfaithfulness of that film, though I am content, for the time being, to agree that 1993's Super Mario Bros. is "bad"put Nintendo off of film adaptations of its properties for more than a quarter of a century, and I expect things like Street Fighter didn't do anything to convince them that the simple storytelling of 80s and 90s video games could be adapted into the more robustly narrative form of a theatrical feature film.  Then the 2010s and 2020s happened, and I suppose they realized that neither robustness nor narrative was necessary or desired, only recognizable IP.  And the result was The Super Mario Bros. Movie, a film scared of its own audience, and above all terrified of being likened to its predecessor on any level, made at Illumination, in a way that I don't entirely feel it'd be correct to say it was made by Illumination, even once we adjust for the comparatively modest ambitions of what is probably the least interesting of all the major American animation houses.  But in any case, it was clearly made under the microscopic scrutiny of immensely conservative rightsholders, who made it very clear that this project was not to set one foot outside of what everyone knows about Mario, and that the one and only purpose of this Super Mario Bros. Movie was to trigger fun memories of playing Nintendo games and, better yet, make you want to buy one on your way home.

Curiously, and I suppose quite strategically and deliberately, what this approach ended up with was a narrative that arguably doesn't quite reach a "kid's movie" level of complexitybecause it arguably doesn't quite reach all the Super Mario Bros. games' level of complexityand, nevertheless, pretty much the entire appeal of the movie, along with most of the plot, is a lumped-together mush of visual and verbal references that only middle-aged adults could possibly get.  (And even then, the leaf doesn't give you the Tanooki suit, what the hell?)  But it is 2023, or it was, and that's all it takes; the movie made well over a billion dollars and was received by its constituency as the way to do a video game adaptation "right."  Which I guess actually means "not adapting it at all," as it's more akin to watching a video game get played for 92 minutes with the bare minimum effort put in to make it "a story."  Even the thing that's slightly more than the bare minimumaddressing the Jesus-they're-barely-even-fictional-characters sexism of the "Mario saves the Princess" trope, by ceding Peach's hostage function to Mario's brother, Luigiturns out to have been the bare minimum after all, because certainly you couldn't expect Luigi to be able to teach Mario how to play the video game he's found himself in, whereas Peach can, and accordingly does.  This constitutes most of the second act of this movie, to the extent, anyway, that it has acts.

As for the first act, which is where the film pretends the hardest (still not terribly hard) to have a story, let's meet Mario Mario (I assume; Chris Pratt) and Luigi Mario (Charlie Day), Brooklynites who have, to the chagrin of their family and amusement of their peers, recently quit their jobs on a wrecking crew (I get it, I guess) to devote themselves full-time to their true passion, plumbing.

And we're going to stop right here, because I feel that it's important to mention this right now.  The Super Mario Bros. Movie is, notionally, a comedyit is by pedigree a comedy, to start with being directed by the creators of Teen Titans Go!, Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic (the director and writer respectively of the movie of Teen Titans Go!, the very funny Teen Titans Go! To Movies, so that Horvath and Jelenic's entire theatrical feature career bears the unpromising stamp of movies with the word "movie" in their title), whereas just the cast members I've already listed strongly imply the intention to be a funny movie.  And, already, it's just not working its comic situations: "you want to be a plumber, one of the most reliably remunerative professions in America? you're lucky I don't disown you!" is just confusing, not comic (like, maybe if they'd been Wall Street traders or NYU professors?), and while "bad plumbers" is potentially comic, the Mario Bros. are confusingly bad at being plumbers.  And this will continue throughout a film that isn't really able to do "jokes" (a shocking turn from guys who made Teen Titans Go! To the Movies) but also isn't competently "serious," either.

Anyway, by way of some confusingly bad plumbingat least I think that's what happenedthe Marios threaten to sink Brooklyn, and in their attempt to fix it and be heroes to their borough, wander into a thankfully-unexplained secret section of the sewers, where Luigi gets lost in a magic warp pipe and Mario strumbles in soon thereafter.  Following a sequence that is, frankly, overvisualized with its Jupiter-and-beyond-the-infinite glowy stuff, rather than hard cuts and sound effects, this spits them out into different parts of the Mushroom Kingdom, ruled by the human Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy), who is excited to meet a fellow H. sapiens for about three seconds before she loses interest in that, and whom Mario takes a full 24 hours to ask how she ended up here, because we have video game mechanics to describe.  Luigi, you see, has wound up in occupied territory, the hellscape controlled by the demonic King of the Koopas, Bowser (Jack Black), who has seized an invincibility star and taken Luigi as one of his many prisoners; obviously, Mario needs to rescue him, but he needs, first, to power up.  Well, after we spend several hours watching Mario play Super Mario poorly and slowly get better at it, he convinces Peach to allow him to accompany her on her diplomatic mission to secure an alliance with the king of the Donkey Kong franchise (Fred Armisen) and his son Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen).  Donkey Kong takes a dislike to Mario immediately, but this is nothing compared to the white-hot hatred Mario stokes in Bowser's heart, for Bowser's ultimate goal is not the conquest of an empire, but of the princess he's so long loved, and the existence of a male of her species in her company is an intolerable affront.

So, points, I guess, for "the plot of this kid's movie is that the turtle monster pretty much explicitly wants to rape the hot chick?", which is at least unexpected in a 2023 blockbuster cartoon, though if my vague awareness of post-Super Mario World games doesn't fail me, it's merely adapting the forcible-marriage premise (and the iconography) of one of them.  I think you'd have to be very charitable to perceive it as doing anything with this premise, however.  Even when it sort of, kind of triesnotably in a showy centerpiece revolving around a piano ballad Black sings to the absent object of Bowser's affectionit's very noncommittal.  Black sings this song twice; I couldn't tell you if it's good or funny because it's not even in the movie for sixty aggregate seconds, because Bowser is interrupted both times.  And I don't know what to do with a movie that has a musical number it evidently despises so much that it stops it twice.  But then, even above and beyond "it's like a video game," The Super Mario Bros. Movie is repetitive: if it finds an idea it thinks is cute, it will shove it down your throat a second time in its bid to hit 92 minutes without actually having any particular story content, memorably so with its pair of slow-motion "mamma mias" from Pratt's Mario.

And might as well dig into that: this is like the platonic ideal of mindless celebrity casting.  Black is at least doing a bit (he plays Bowser as so consummately malevolent that it wouldn't occur to him to distinguish between "good" and "evil"), and for that is the best in the cast by default, though his "joke" parts, regarding Bowser's nervousness about meeting Peach, just flop around; Day's neurotic Luigi gets runner-up here, simply by virtue of being the only participant who feels like anyone even thought about who'd be good at this rendition of the character, rather than throwing a dart at a board of Hollywood actors.  As for our hero, Pratt is at least doing (barely) "a voice," and it's a reasonably noble effort on behalf of a figure who, to my recollection, has historically been a collection of Eye-talian catchphrases, and still is, though Pratt has the thankless task of continuing to read dialogue between those catchphrases.  Taylor-Joy lives completely down to her non-character; meanwhile, you could convince me Rogen didn't know he was playing Donkey Kong, or even what movie he was in (for all the flak Pratt caught, Rogen was the one that struck me as "film-wreckingly miscast," but such is The Super Mario Bros. Movie that it can't really be wrecked by something as insignificant as the performance of a major character in it); and Keegan-Michael Key plays Toad, who's so important I didn't mention him, and he's loudly convivial, which is sort of like being funny, I guess.  On the margins, there's some slight effort, though the film's breakout character, a Luma (Juliet Jelenic) in the same World 8 prison as Luigi, who's gone cheerfully mad with despair, feels like such a desperately forced "laugh at our provocation" gesture that I couldn't even enjoy it despite it being more-or-less on my wavelength of humor.  Mario's biggest joke, anyway, is a runner about how he doesn't like mushrooms, and it's pitiful.  There are a couple of sequences done up like side-scrollers that are mildly amusing even if they are, and feel, a little obligatory.

Theoretically, though, the principal driver of this cartoon is adventure.  It's basically The Last Starfighter with about the same lack of awareness that watching someone else play a videogame fucking sucks*, but I have never been of the opinion that making an adventure movie out of Super Mario material is impossible.  I don't really think it should be that hard, even, given the enormous, borderline-surrealist imagination that's gone into the video game franchise over the past forty or so years.  On this front, Illumination has even almost succeeded by virtue of pure brute, eye-zapping force: this movie looks great, probably the best thing that studio has ever delivered on a technical level, between the intoxicating colorfulness of the design, lighting effects used to create a world humming with poppy energy, and hi-fi renditions of the Mario characters that despite slavish faithfulness at least feel like the expensive, American CGI-animated movie versions of those characters.  (And I'm pretty sure somebody here, not just Bowser, wants to fuck Princess Peach.  This isn't a criticism, as it also means Peach probably has the most expressive character animation, even if neither she nor Taylor-Joy have much to express.)  It is occasionally even able to snatch bits and pieces of genuine filmmaking out of video game references, such as the sound decision to make its go-kart chase into Mad Max: Rainbow Road, which it prosecutes with some complicated staging and terrifically dynamic layout.

But I'm not even entirely sure why or how Rainbow Road happened, and what might have been its coolest moment, the reveal that the featured henchman chasing them was always a Koopa Paratroopa, must be punctuated by him exclaiming "BLUUUE SHELLLL!" to, I reckon, the audience, because while this is a movie that, yes, leaves a lot of its easter eggs to be found by those with an interest in collecting them, because there are so many that it would otherwise be a constant screech, it is still a movie where half the screenplay is spent shouting "THIS IS A REFERENCE, DO YOU GET THE REFERENCE?" at you.  The other half is just labeled [music montage], and this is an embarrassing nadir of lazy pop music needle-drops, most being ungodly literal in their relationship to the action, e.g., "Holding Out For a Hero" as Peach patiently holds out for Mario to become a hero, and then going into full-tilt "random noise" territory with "Take On Me" in the nonsensical Diddy Kong Racing module, which I find especially vexing because from the point of view of 2023, "Africa" is, like, basically sitting right there on the shelf next to it, though I suppose I concede that it's too meditative a song to go along with a dumbass video game reference and complete non-adaptation of Kong Island as any kind of actual place.

It's annoying, because this is a movie that had 99% of its work done for it alreadymost of it is just the application of CGI-animated feature film technology to a video game series that figured out how to translate its iconic character and world designs into CGI animation many, many years agoto the extent that when they didn't have templates, like for Mario and Luigi's fellow Brooklynites, they feel "off," like they're not from the same design mentality.  (And not to spoil too much, but returning to Brooklyn just feels like a complete error; it places me in the awkward position of having to declare that the worst thing that the movie ever doesin its weak, even kind-of-bullying attempt to tie off a character arc for Mario that hasn't even existed for the last houris also the one thing it ever does that so much as threatens to step outside of its "watching a Mario game" box.  But oh well.  Somehow, I feel something like the same way about Brian Tyler's score, which I respect more than anything else in the movie: it's quite good at rearranging various Mario themes, but Tyler was apparently the sole person involved who didn't want to use the games as a crutch... even though he might as well have.)

But I said there's no reason Super Mario couldn't be a fine adventure movie about a plumber and a princess on an odyssey through design elements established long ago by people an ocean away.  All they had to do was put life in thempurpose, personality, identity, spirit, whatever you want to call it.  The closest it gets is what I'm confident calling the film's best scene by some margin, where Luigi is confronted, and is suitably terrified, by the horror of deathless Dry Boneses rising from a mass grave.  Otherwise, it's when we learn that, in the Mushroom Kingdom, they use pipes for transportation.  But, man, I already knew that.  Will we do anything with these pipes?  Will they be a fun, action-adventure mechanic?  These are rhetorical questions.  Everything here takes the path of absolute least resistance; it's just "remember this?" four hundred times in a row, and only on the rare occasion, for instance a field of fire flowers, a world or a story that wants you to care about it on its own merits.  It's at least focused enough in its IP-sploitation that I can reluctantly comprehend why it managed to make so many people happy.  It's finessed enough that I wouldn't describe it as a pop-culture-is-dead emergency on the level of a Spider-Man: No Way Home or a Space Jam: A New Legacy.  But I'm not saying it's not on that spectrum.

Score: 5/10

*Obviously literally hundreds of millions of people disagree with this proposition.  But while even I myself will sometimes watch Super Smash Bros. Ultimate tournament playto learn from masters and get better at Super Smash Bros. Ultimatethat doesn't mean, by any estimation, that I am apt to find animators flogging characters through a video game "fun."


  1. Excellent review, and I agree pretty much 100%. "It's just 'remember this?' four hundred times in a row" is an excellent summary. I also like the term "IP-sploitation."

    One thing I was grateful for, at least, is that it's the Mario vs. Bowser movie, and the Mario vs. Donkey movie, and the Mario Kart movie, and for about two minutes the Luigi's Mansion movie. In the Cinematic Universe era, I might have expected each one of those to be an outing.

    1. Thanks Dan!

      Yeah, the Mario Kart stuff sort of fits in I guess (could've been warp whistles for transport, which would even have afforded the screenplay some sub-missions). But while I guess it's nice it doesn't "hold back," they make it more incoherent.

      If I were overhauling it from jump, I'd have left that out, and probably have put Peach in captivity with Luigi and given them a prison break subplot, while Mario must learn how to play Super Mario without the benefit of a walking, talking manual. But whatever, I'm just gonna watch the weird one about dinosaur people and Samantha Mathis's brief flirtation with stardom again.

    2. Maybe if they have to hack a security console as they escape Bowser's clutches, it becomes a Mario Teaches Typing adaptation, too.

      I watched the '93 movie once while sick when I was a kid, so it is half-remembered as a fever dream.

  2. I'm sure this isn't an original thought at all but a faithful fully animated CGI film version of Super Mario Bros. sounds especially redundant to me, to the point that I can't help but suspect if I ever tried watching it I'd be continuously irritated that I'm forced to, well, watch it and can't just play the darn thing myself.

    Call me crazy but I think this is one of those rare situations where I'd actually WANT them to go the "fictional characters spill out from the TV and into the real world' route. Like, I'd be totally down for CGI Mario, Luigi, Toad, and Princess working together with a couple of precocious live-action kids to get the renegade Bowser and the koopas back into the Nintendo videoland of the Mushroom Kingdom (and in the process helping their bickering parents rekindle their love for each other or somesuch). Hell, we could use more animation-meets-live-action movies that aren't Space Jam, you'd think CGI would've made those far more abundant.

    A healthy amount of set pieces and other scenes fully set in the digital world could help quell any "I-didn't-come-here-to-watch-He-Man-order-drive-thru-at-KFC" audence deflatedness.

    Yes, I'm nuts, but that's how uninterested in a CGI Super Mario Bros. movie I am.

    1. I mean, I don't know if I'd like it, but it would be something. (I don't know if it's unclear from the review, but I actually do kinda like the 1993 film, so you're not the only crazy one, even if our crazy diverges.)

      If they were just going to teach Mario to play video games, couldn't it have at least been a Captain N movie?