It appears that Illumination has mastered the art of becoming a meme in their marketing campaigns — look at what the “Gentleminions” meme did for Minions: The Rise of Gru last summer — and proceeding to have underwhelming end products. The Super Mario Bros. Movie (simplified to Super Mario Bros. from now on) is the studio’s latest output that features beautiful animation but a forgettable, and borderline boring, story.

The Super Mario Bros. Movie Review

The story of Super Mario Bros. comes down to Bowser (voiced by Jack Black, for better or worse) wanting to marry Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy) and then taking over the world together. Meanwhile, Mario (Chris Pratt), and Luigi (Charlie Day) are this universe’s equivalent of slackers, recently quitting their day jobs and investing their savings into a commercial to kickstart their plumbing business. Upon stumbling across a green tube, the two are transported into Mushroom Kingdom and our adventure kicks off.

Bowser, The Super Mario Bros. Movie
A still from The Super Mario Bros. Movie courtesy of Universal Pictures/Illumination.

that teaser trailer, who would’ve guessed that the worst part of Super Mario Bros. isn’t, in fact, Chris Pratt’s voice? Luckily, that’s addressed right off the jump and I suppose does a passable job of making you overlook Mario from Brooklyn. Day is pretty good as Luigi, but he’s delegated to this film’s “damsel in distress” role — rarely doing anything when not with Mario (I guess he really will always be in his shadow). Whether this was done to avoid putting Princess Peach in that clichéd role or for another reason, it’s an underwhelming usage of Luigi and sacrifices Day’s performance.

Princess Peach is voiced by the uber-talented Taylor-Joy but lacks anything that would make her special. As we’ve seen in Last Night in Soho, The Northman, and The Menu in the past two years alone, she's one of the best up-and-coming actresses working today. Her role as Princess Peach, however, falls flat since her most notable moment is either serving as the Mickey to Mario’s Rocky during the training montage or rejecting Bowser’s hand in marriage.

Mario, Princess Peach, Toad, The Super Mario Bros. Movie
A still from The Super Mario Bros. Movie courtesy of Universal Pictures/Illumination.

Speaking of Bowser, Bowser in this film is … fine? When he’s menacing, he’s quite good, but when the filmmakers let Jack Black do Jack Black things — like singing a song in that '80s style with images of the subject appearing and fading away throughout the song — it’s a mess. This film skews toward a younger audience after all, so, understandably, Bowser can’t simply be a fire-breathing menace, but that means he has a softer side in this film.

Unlike Bowser in the video games, this iteration is like a teenager with his first “love.” He’s stuck in a parasocial relationship with Princess Peach and is obsessed with the demise of any man who speaks to her. The line delivery by Black is pretty spot on in the moments he has to portray Bowser's insecurity, and his overall presentation is quite good when the film wants it to be. The film opens with an Infinity War-like opening where his ship is making its way toward the Snow Kingdom — or wherever the penguins live. He’s occasionally treated like a big deal — like one of the ultimate end-level bosses — it’s just a shame that it’s not consistent. It’s as if The Tribal Chief version of Roman Reigns was still delivering “sufferin’ succotash” one-liners during his promos.

Other voice actors do put in some solid work, though. I initially thought it was Jake Gyllenhaal's voice when Donkey Kong spoke, but it just took one laugh to realize that it was Seth Rogen. Rogen is coming off a more dramatic performance in The Fabelmans, so a more comedic role is also welcomed. At his core, this version of Donkey Kong is just a boy seeking approval from his father — voiced by the great Fred Armisen — and is willing to fight anyone in his way to get that.

Donkey Kong, The Super Mario Bros. Movie
A still from The Super Mario Bros. Movie courtesy of Universal Pictures/Illumination.

But the reality of it is, Super Mario Bros. is at its best when it's referencing the past. I’m not typically an advocate for nostalgia for nostalgia's sake, nor am I someone who grew up on the Mario games (I did enjoy that red case one for the Wii in my younger years), but the little rap that opens the film and harkens back to the Super Mario Bros. Super Show days, or the way this film pays homage by incorporating a sequel with the old-school side-scroll games, bring the kid in me back and remind you that this is a video game film.

Although, unlike a video game (at least a good one), Super Mario Bros. lacks in story. On one hand, I do understand that the filmmakers and writer Matthew Fogel are attempting to capture the attention of kids — plus, he only has 90 minutes to work with — but the story here just flies by with no time to look back or take anything in.

For example, there are vignettes of Luigi’s childhood that really explain his psyche and why he’s always in the shadow of his brother. Those vignettes are exactly that — and they hardly last longer than it took you to read that paragraph. No one wants a Super Mario Bros. film with the runtime of The Irishman to explore the entirety of Mario and Luigi’s lives, but it’s hard to feel much of anything without any emotional hook. It feels like the story is a chore and that Fogel was less interested in telling interesting stories in between the action sequences and was always desperately looking for the shortest route to those possible.

And even with all of that said, I think future installments in this franchise would have a lot going for them. The dirty work of setting up these iterations of Mario and Luigi is done, so, hopefully, we get a true adventure in the inevitable sequel(s).

The Super Mario Bros. Movie
A still from The Super Mario Bros. Movie courtesy of Universal Pictures/Illumination.

Even if the story doesn’t work, the animation of Super Mario Bros. is breathtaking. Everything from the textures of Mario’s overalls or the water in the sewer, the attention to detail is really admirable. The lighting is equally impressive — especially during any sequence on Bowser’s ship. All of this creates a world that would be engulfing if only for a more engaging story.

The score is composed by Brian Tyler (a go-to composer for franchise films), but it’s evident that he worked closely with the original Mario composer Koji Kondo to implement those classic themes into the film. Whether it comes in the form of Bowser playing the “Underworld Theme” while jamming on his piano or the rumblings of it in the background when Mario and Luigi first go into the sewers, Tyler and Kondo found ways to weave these nostalgic songs in seamlessly.

The other music choices are a bit strange. I guess it's a testament to the power of Universal and their music division — who try to replicate the needle drops of Edgar Wright's work or the Guardians of the Galaxy films — but Super Mario Bros. is littered with the hits of the past such as “Never Gonna Give You Up” and “Thunderstruck” (they even use “Mr. Blue Sky” in a not-so-subtle reference to Pratt's role in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2) that don't justify their placement when you already have a great score full of nostalgia that comes from this specific IP.

Should you see The Super Mario Bros. Movie? 

I think everyone wanted a great Super Mario Bros. movie after the disaster of the '90s film. However, I'm afraid that the bar was set so low that some will be deluded into believing that Super Mario Bros. is something of a cinematic masterpiece. To be fair, this is still light years ahead of that film, but that’s like bragging that your starting quarterback is better than his backups. It’s a visually interesting film that really does channel the more recent iterations of Mario while also paying homage to what has come before. If we were just grading off of craftsmanship, it’s an A+.

Unfortunately, the story feels like an obligation and means to an end rather than a story, and the voice cast is nothing special despite its star-studded lineup — a recurring Illumination theme. I think even the most die-hard fans would be left disappointed. Here’s to the next one!

Grade: C+

The Super Mario Bros. Movie will be released on April 5.