It’s shocking that Super Mario Bros. arrived nearly forty years ago, and we’re just now getting a respectable film adaptation. After all, Mario is the most iconic video game figure in history, and the most recognizable cartoon character this side of Mickey and Bugs. Sure, Hollywood attempted a live-action take back in the 90s, but that was an underwritten, overblown misfire. At last, this is the movie we’ve been needing: Gentle in touch, deft in humor, and beautiful to behold, 2023’s Mario may not be a masterpiece, but it is the best movie we’ll ever get about two plumbers fending off an apocalypse of flying turtles and waddling mushrooms.
Anyone who wasted a sizable chunk of their childhood on the Mario franchise will instantly recognize everything about this movie. (Conversely, if you’re not a child of the 80s/90s, or a literal child, I’d advise against this Mario altogether.) Mario (Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day) are struggling young plumbers, determined to corner the market on leaky faucets and flooded basements throughout Brooklyn. Unfortunately, they botch the few calls that come in, and even their own family begins to doubt their chances.
One night, the boys hear of a water main break somewhere in the borough. They race to the sight, with the hopes of being citywide heroes. Of course, they end up lost in the bowels of the city. Luigi happens upon a green drain pipe, and I think you guys know what that means! Yup, the green guy gets sucked into another dimension. Mario races after him, but they get separated into different pipes.
Luigi lands in a smoldering wasteland that makes Mordor look hospitable. Undead turtles prowl the outdoors, while Shy Guys guard the spooky castles. Meanwhile, Mario ends up in the Mushroom Kingdom, a psychedelic Wonkascape of fantastical creatures and millions of colors. He conveniently meets Toad (Keegan-Michael Key), a feisty little creature whose confidence greatly outmatches his size. Toad hears Mario’s plight and takes him to meet Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy).
The Princess correctly figures that Luigi has been captured by Bowser (Jack Black). He’s the massive, megalomaniacal turtle with perfect pitch and plans to conquer the world. Peach quickly forms a plan to rescue to Luigi and quell Bowser’s plan. This involves recruiting King Kong (Seth Rogen) and his fellow apes for the attack.
And that’s really all there is to it. The resulting movie essentially works on two levels: On one, Mario is simple, sweet-natured story about two bumbling brothers who must grow into their larger destiny. The animation is vibrant, and the action beats can even hold the attention of smaller kids. (My little boy is three, and he stuck with it for quite a while.)
The other level is exclusively for grown-ups: Mario slathers its story in nostalgia, like barbecue sauce on a rack of ribs. The soundtrack frequently quotes many of the franchise’s maddeningly catchy themes. Characters frequently riff on cutscenes from the classic series. (When Mario tries to access the throne room, the guards inform him that the princess is in another castle.) And the visual gags refer to every incarnation of the franchise, from 8-bit all the way to the Nintendo Switch. Also, keep an eye out for a cameo from Yoshi!
If that supercharged trip down memory lane sounds fun, The Super Mario Bros. Movie is probably up your alley. For parents, the real question is how this will hold up for repeat viewings. I’ve seen it twice, and I caught more jokes the second time, especially in the music. Beyond that, I can’t speak for the fifth or tenth screenings. However many times you watch, just remember it could always be worse. You want proof? Go back to that ’93 live-action Mario. This is Citizen Kane compared to that drivel.
92 min. PG. On demand.