Review: The Super Mario Bros. Movie Features All the Characters, Set Pieces of the Storied Game, Just None of the Actual Story

And I thought I was a little bit lost during the recent Dungeons & Dragons movie.

I don’t live under a rock, so I know a little something about the Super Mario Bros./Donkey Kong series of games that everyone and their grandmother seems to have played over the past 30-some years. After a fairly miserable attempt at a live-action adaptation 30 years ago with Super Mario Bros., Nintendo and the Illumination Studios (who gave us the Despicable Me and Minions movies) have cooked up an animated adventure filled with mushrooms, turtles, man-eating plants, castles, karts, and a princess named Peach, all revolving around two plumber brothers named Mario (voiced by Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day), who must defeat an evil turtle monster named Bowser (Jack Black), bent on conquering the Mushroom Kingdom. Got it? Now explain it to me; I’m lost.

However, my first question about The Super Mario Bros. Movie isn’t about the story; it’s about the casting. Thankfully, the world’s fears that Pratt was going to put on some exaggerated Italian accent for the voice of Mario (as it is in the video games) can be put to rest; he doesn’t do that. What’s puzzling me is why they hired Pratt at all since he’s already the lead voice in a successful animated franchise with The Lego Movie? I’m not trying to limit any actor’s opportunities, but he’s basically using the same voice for both characters, so what’s the point? I’ll at least give Jack Black (star of the equally successful Kung Fu Panda series) a little credit for making Bowser’s voice deep and gravely. Maybe I’m alone in this criticism, but it seems wildly unoriginal.

Without getting lost in the details of the video games (of which there are many), the main throughline of this film is that Bowser is in love with the Mushroom Kingdom’s leader, Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy), and he seems bent on destroying every other kingdom in his path to get to her. He seems willing to kill in order for her to agree to marry him, so this just feels like a toxic relationship from the get-go. Meanwhile back in Brooklyn, Mario and Luigi are trying to get their plumbing business off the ground, so they attempt to help the city with a major leakage problem under the streets, which leads them to a mysterious pipe that sucks them into the aforementioned kingdom, where they get separated. Mario meets a cute little mushroom guy named Toad (Keegan-Michael Key), who takes them to the princess. When he learns that his brother may be a prisoner of or in danger from Bowser, he agrees to accompany Peach to the land of Kongs, to enlist their help in fighting off the onslaught.

In one of the film’s more visually interesting sequences, Mario goes head-to-head against Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen), whom he must defeat if the Kong’s leader (Fred Armisen) is to agree to help out Peach. Not surprisingly, the place where they must fight looks a lot like the original Donkey Kong game, with girders, ladders, barrels and other makeshift weapons. Thankfully, Peach has trained Mario well in the ways of using various of power-ups in this world, and standing even the slightest chance of winning this battle royale. This being a barely 90-minute movie, things move pretty fast, so you don’t have to worry in the slightest about spending too much time in one place or getting to know any of these characters even a tiny bit. In order to fit in all variations of Mario and Luigi’s gaming adventures, there’s a big Kart race across rainbow roads as well that involves most of the main characters, and will probably make most gamers very happy.

The film is directed by Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic (collaborators on Teen Titans Go! To the Movies) from a screenplay by Matthew Fogel (The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part), so we know the creative forces behind The Super Mario Bros. Movie are capable of better work. I’d estimate about 90 percent of the dialogue in this film is yelling, and I couldn’t help but imagine that the screenplay (or should I say “scream”-play) was written on bright purple paper in ALL CAPS.

What about this movie was supposed to move or engage me in any way? All I saw and heard were a slew of famous voices voicing characters going through the motions of wedging a storyline-free video game into something resembling a story. What’s worse, unlike the recent Tetris movie (and yes, I realize these are two vastly different films), nothing about watching The Super Mario Bros. Movie made me want to try out these games, ever. In fact, it convinced me I’d hate them. Entering these various worlds and kingdoms felt more like an assault on the senses than a visit to any sort of magical destination; the subpar animation style doesn’t help sell the wonder of it all either. I guess we’re back to movies based on video games sucking again.

The film is now playing in theaters.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.