Across the history of cinematic screw-ups, few have been as notorious or lasting as 1993’s Super Mario Bros. The film – a loose adaptation of Nintendo’s hit platforming franchise, starring Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo – came to epitomise the “curse” of sub-par game-to-screen adaptations for decades. Hollywood simply didn’t understand video games. Hoskins was oblivious to the film’s origins until he’d already signed on, and who could blame him? Even if he had played the games, the murky, off-putting crime fantasy was unrecognisable from the eye-poppingly colourful frivolity that inspired it. Thirty years later and the Mario games have been adapted again. But this time The Super Mario Brothers Movie suffers from the opposite problem: it understands video games far, far too well.
In many ways, the new children’s feature, released in cinemas this week, is the antithesis not just of the 1993 version, but of every shoddy video-game adaptation that trudged in its footsteps. Whether we’re talking zany action films (1995’s Mortal Kombat), grimy horrors (2004’s Resident Evil: Apocalypse), third-rate fantasies (2010’s Prince of Persia) or… whatever the hell Assassin’s Creed (2017) was, video games have inspired a host of the worst Hollywood films in recent memory. What these films all have in common is an abject failure to reproduce what it is people found so fun about the games in the first place. The Super Mario Brothers Movie – a co-production between Illumination studio and Nintendo themselves – knows intimately what it is gamers are looking for in a Mario film, and it provides it in spades. Filmmaking, though, has never been about ticking boxes.
Unlike the botched 1993 version, the new Mario is animated, with the characters and environments rendered in painstakingly faithful imitation of the source material. Though it’s transparently aimed at young kids, it devotes a lot of energy catering to the nostalgia of older gamers; the screening I doggedly attended (admittedly, an early evening one on opening night in central London) more childless adults than children. For its efforts, the film is absolutely packed with things that gamers will recognise – characters, items, music cues, etc. Those with enough familiarity will be able to pick up on, say, the menu score from Mario Kart 8 being interpolated into the soundtrack when Mario and co are preparing to drive. Does this augment the film in any substantive way? Obviously not. But in the modern age of nerd culture supremacy, “Easter eggs” such as this are all too often used and accepted as currency. All of this ensures that The Super Mario Brothers Movie is a world apart from Super Mario Bros ’93. But it’s just as painful to watch.
Once you stop recognising things and start actually watching, it’s clear there are myriad problems with The Super Mario Bros Movie. Its plot, which flits between story beats with an attention-deficient abruptness, is utterly without heft. The emotional throughlines are threadbare, the dialogue pathetic. The whole thing plays out like a feature-length advertisement: to really hammer the point home, screenings were immediately preceded by a bombastic post-trailers ad for the Nintendo Switch and its range of Mario games.
Perhaps the biggest departure from the games is the casting of Chris Pratt as the titular plumber, replacing Charles Martinet’s inimitable Italianised yelps with a more conventional American clip. (This was an inevitability, really: the game’s Mario was always too one-note to ever make it to the screen without titivation.) Though Pratt has rightly faced criticism for his anaemic vocal performance, the truth is that most of the other cast members are similarly lacking. Jack Black gives bluster and strains for baritone as the villainous Bowser, but never quite lands on a consistent voice. Keegan-Michael Key gives a passable turn as the skin-scratchingly annoying Toad. As Luigi, Charlie Day is more or less doing Charlie Day. Others – Anya Taylor-Joy’s Princess Peach; Seth Rogen’s Donkey Kong – are insipid. Hollywood has turned its back on specialised voice actors, and animations like these are all the poorer for it.
Already, there has emerged a perceived divide between “critics” (snobbish; untrustworthy; fun-hating) and “fans” (honest; receptive; fun-embracing). You can see this in the film’s polarised Rotten Tomatoes scores, with the film chalking up a 53 per cent “Rotten” rating from critics and a cheerful 96 per cent “Fresh” from audiences. While this divide can be seen in a lot of contemporary cinema, it is particularly acute here, perhaps due to the differing expectations of gamers and moviegoers. Watched from a “gaming” perspective, The Super Mario Bros Movie may as well be Citizen Kane. If you like what the games are offering, well, there’s no denying it’s all up there on screen. From a “cinematic” perspective, though, all the Easter eggs and callbacks mean nothing. It’s just another crappy Mario film.
This year has already seen one superlative video-game adaptation, in the HBO drama The Last of Us. It’s true that, like Mario Bros, The Last of Us offered gamers a smorgasbord of references to things they had loved before, recreating swathes of the 2013 PlayStation game with fastidious fidelity. But it never neglected the facets that have always been at the heart of what makes film and TV worthwhile: acting; writing; storytelling. The Super Mario Bros Movie is an empty vessel, a corporate tulpa manifested by Nintendo executives. It’s almost enough to make you long for the days of Hopkins and Leguizamo. Almost.