April is the cruelest month. The dead land breeds lilacs, memory and desire are intertwined, and spring rain stirs up the roots of dead trees. But if I check the clock, it’s also Mario time.
The “Super Mario Bros. Movie,” with its primary-color vistas, is here to brighten our dreary spring, be damned TS Elliott. The heightened enthusiasm for a Mario Bros. movie is a once unthinkable development. Mario was last on the big screen in 1993 in a little-known live-action film starring Bob Hoskins as Mario, John Leguizamo as Luigi and Dennis Hopper (!) as Bob Ze. Hoskins called the experience “af—a nightmare.”
But a lot has changed in the 30 years since the first video game adaptation, Super Mario Bros. The once widely derided genre is now a cash cow. The Last of Us was a huge success on HBO. Pokemon and “Uncharted” were box office hits. Sonic the Hedgehog has made two movies, and Mario is catching up.
“Super Mario Bros. The Movie,” which opens in theaters Wednesday, is a feisty and witty attempt to get a head start. A collaboration between legendary video game designer and Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto and Illumination founder Chris Meledandry (both producers), this is a more heartfelt effort to capture the fun and spirit of Nintendo’s games .
Visually, it’s a dream. Directors Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic, along with their animators, render the world of Mario in a cartoonish glow, matching the game’s artful simplicity with a stronger and equally delightful day-glo flavor. If playing “Super Mario Bros.” is part of the appeal. Its many offshoots have been steeped in such a sunny imaginary world—plus composer Koji Kondo’s perky earworms—and the film manages to mirror the joys of stepping on mushrooms. It makes you… want to play Mario.
That’s because while watching The Super Mario Bros. Movie is nice, it’s nowhere near as fun as playing it. It’s him, Mario, but it’s no masterpiece. The storyline is only slightly above the interstitial plots you usually get between games. With the exception of Jack Black’s lovesick Bowser (who’s part Phantom of the Opera and part meatloaf folk singer), there’s little to deepen these characters beyond the usual 2-D adventures. Mario may be a modern-day Mickey Mouse, but his kingdom is on the console.
“The Super Mario Bros. Movie” starts a lot like Spike Lee’s “Doing the Right Thing”: at a pizza place in Brooklyn. There Mario (Chris Pratt, passable despite the outcry) and Luigi (Charlie Day) are trying to get their plumbing business off the ground. Before the brothers try to fix a broken water pipe, they experience some stereotypical Italian life–pasta and a big family dinner–and they’re transported through a portal into the game’s fantasy realm. (In future sequels set in Brooklyn, Mario may battle waves of strollers and hipsters.)
Bowser, on the other hand, leads the Koopa Troop army in scenes that feel like the most surreal parody of “Triumph of the Will.” But while it’s possible to shrink or expand on the other side of the green pipe, there’s never any mention of the possibility that Mario could die while walking through mushroom fields and question mark boxes. His plight is as clear as it is in the game: separated from Luigi, he must help save Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy) from being forced to marry Bowser.
Game logic usually determines Mario’s actions. Turtle-like Koopas have shells that slide around like ammunition. Choosing a Mario Kart vehicle is likewise a difficult decision. Sometimes, the overlap is less consistent. The Invincible Star is the most sought-after item in this adventure, greatly exaggerating its typical use. These things go on for 10 seconds.
None of this is enough to make anyone exclaim “Oh yes!” while jumping up and down and taking their hat off. But here’s an hour and a half of superlative marketing that will whet your appetite for more Mario’s coming home on the couch. If anything, the “okey dokey” “Super Mario Bros. Movie,” as Mario calls it, only reinforces the distance between the two disparate mediums. It may be a video game adaptation, but the Mario main event is still coming back to Nintendo.
Universal Pictures’ “Super Mario Bros. Movie” is rated PG for action and mild violence by the Motion Picture Association of America. Runtime: 92 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
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