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The Super Mario Bros. Movie Review: It's-A Meh

  • The Mushroom Kingdom is brought to vibrant life
  • Lots of fun in-jokes for video game fans
  • Voice cast is mostly very good
  • Attempts to make Mario an actual character don't work
  • Less sense of adventure compared to the games
  • Generic song choices drag down a great musical score

For better and worse, "The Super Mario Bros. Movie" is exactly what you'd expect from a Mario movie made by Illumination Entertainment. Since 2010's "Despicable Me," Illumination has developed a reputation as the most average of the major animation studios, aiming for the lowest common denominator with consistent competency and making tons of money in the process without ever reaching the creative heights of the best Pixar or DreamWorks movies.

That safe consistency was likely a selling point for "Mario" creator Shigeru Miyamoto and the team at Nintendo, who've been wary of Hollywood since the bonkers-bad 1993 live-action "Super Mario Bros." Illumination's animated "The Super Mario Bros. Movie" is not an embarrassing disaster like that previous adaptation, and for that alone it's probably going to make a billion dollars. It's respectful of its source material and the quantity of in-jokes and Easter eggs is high enough that fans of the games will likely enjoy themselves while watching it.

Just don't go in expecting anything more than that. Where the "Mario" game series has included some of the most creative and innovative work in the medium over the past 40 years, the "Mario" movie is only mildly creative and couldn't have innovation any further from its mind. Still one of the best video game-based movies by default, its weaknesses highlight the differences between mediums and why it's so hard to make a good adaptation for most games in the first place.

The main character is the worst character

So let's address the biggest source of skepticism about "The Super Mario Bros. Movie": Chris Pratt's Mario voice. Honestly, he's not doing a terrible job so much as I'm not sure anyone really knows what the job is. In the video games, Mario is by nature a blank slate for the player to fill, "WA-HOO"-ing his way around other more distinctive characters. Movie Mario, in contrast, needs a personality and a character arc, which the film can't really piece together. If Pratt's Mario sounds gruff one minute and like Linda Belcher the next, It's because there's no clear direction for how he's supposed to play this non-character.

So who is movie Mario? He no longer talks like an Italian stereotype but now lives with a whole family of them. Being a plumber would seem to indicate working class, down-to-earth goals, but bizarrely his family treats Mario's desired profession as an unachievable aspiration. Mario's early-career woes seem to place him and Luigi (Charlie Day) in their 20s, something Pratt's performance never convincingly pulls off. In an attempt at seriousness, Mario also has a lot of angst about feeling "small," a narrative thread which completely fizzles out. Also, he hates eating mushrooms, because IRONY.

The smartest choice the filmmakers made for Mario's characterization is to center his willingness to repeatedly try and fail. Trial and error is familiar to anyone who's played a Mario platformer, so translating that experience into the actual story is clever and the closest any of the attempts at standard family film "message" stuff come to working. The script also gets some decent mileage out of the sibling relationship between Mario and Luigi. Making Luigi the one who gets initially captured by Bowser (Jack Black) rather than Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy) gives Mario's quest more personal stakes while also letting Peach be a more independent character than she's typically been in the mainline game series.

I do wish that quest felt more substantial, though. There's basically four major set pieces in this 92-minute movie: a training course, Mario vs. Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen), the Rainbow Road Mario Kart sequence, and a finale which is one of the few things still left unspoiled by the movie's copious advertising. All are fun bursts of action that benefit from Illumination's most beautiful animation to date and Brian Tyler's high-energy orchestrations of Koji Kondo's classic musical themes. What's lacking is the sense of exploration that makes the games feel so big. I'm reluctant to say that the film should have been longer, but it's almost paradoxical that as bare bones as the games' stories are, the movie that tries to expand on them feels small in comparison.

Fan service makes the generic parts go down easier

While my critic brain found fault with "The Super Mario Bros. Movie," I must confess that my nerd brain had a really good time with a lot of it. I loved how much care was put into making the Mushroom Kingdom a detailed, lived-in environment — this will certainly be an effective advertisement for Universal's Super Nintendo Land theme park experience. I loved hearing Charlie Day scream as Luigi and Jack Black carry a tune as Bowser (yes, he gets to sing). I had fun with all the game references, from a shortcut through a construction site that perfectly matches Level 1-1 from the original "Super Mario Bros." game to a perfect deployment of every "Mario Kart" player's least favorite item. I'm still trying to wrap my head around the fact the Nintendo Entertainment System exists within the universe of this movie based on the NES' launch title, but best not to overthink this sort of thing.

I would have had an even better time if the non-reference humor was more inspired. A lot of it is of the typical stating-the-obvious sort you see in a lot of middle-of-the-road family cartoons: the cute characters acknowledge their cuteness, someone yells "DRAMA" at a dramatic moment, etc. Even some of the "adult" gags play out in rather obvious ways. Similarly uninspired are the song selections, all the most literal and obvious needle drops for any given moment: the "Kill Bill" music for an "epic" fight scene, "No Sleep Till Brooklyn" while the brothers are traveling through Brooklyn, "I Need a Hero" when Mario's learning to be a hero, and so on.

If you're a gamer or a parent, you're probably already going to see "The Super Mario Bros. Movie" regardless of what critics say, and you'll probably have enough fun with it not to feel disappointed. It's mediocre on more than few levels, but inoffensively so, and the fan service really works. As far as comedy-adventure movies based on games go, however, you'll have an even better time at "Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves," which excels at both the comedy and the adventure.

"The Super Mario Bros. Movie" opens in theaters April 5.