I’ve been waiting three decades for Hollywood to make a film that could wash away my disappointing memories of seeing the 1993 Super Mario Bros. movie in theaters on opening weekend.
Yes, I know that famously messy production has now become something of a cult classic among people who are now nostalgic for its uniquely ’90s vibe. But I’m still not completely recovered from my experience as a 10-year-old Mario superfan who was crushed to see a completely unrecognizable version of Mario on the silver screen. Rather than a loving homage to the world of my favorite video game, that younger version of me got an unrelated gonzo steampunk fever dream with the barest sprinkling of Mario references layered on top.
If anything, Illumination’s The Super Mario Bros. Movie has the opposite problem. This film version captures all the fun and vibrancy of the Mario games, with enough references to familiar characters, items, and locations to make even a die-hard Mario fan’s head spin. But the movie is so maniacally focused on squeezing in as many of those references as possible at a madcap pace that the film comes off as unfocused, cluttered, and nearly incomprehensible from a story perspective.
It’s also everything that a 10-year-old version of me could ever have dreamed a Mario movie could be.
The Mario games aren’t exactly known for their deep plots, so it should be no surprise that this film’s story is almost painfully straightforward. Mario and Luigi, two tight-knit but struggling Brooklyn plumbers, get separated when they unexpectedly fall into the fantastical Mushroom Kingdom. Instead of the usual Mario-saves-the-princess tale, Mario seeks Princess Peach’s help to rescue his brother from Bowser’s evil clutches. Peach—cast here as an endearing badass girl boss eager to protect her mushroom subjects—leads a fish-out-of-water Mario on a quest to recruit allies and stop Bowser for good.
I won’t spoil the ending, but was it really in doubt? Mario’s platform games tend to end only one way, after all…
There are a few perfunctory attempts at deeper characterization as the plot meanders from point to point. Mario gets an annoying family of Italian stereotypes, for instance, just so the film can spend roughly 30 seconds examining his drive to impress a withholding father. Bowser, meanwhile, is driven by dual desires to destroy the Mushroom Kingdom and force Peach to wed him under duress, a dichotomy that the film is at least self-aware enough to poke fun at.
These and other tropey subplots—the “enemies become friends” one; the “family is stronger together” one; the “meet-cute romantic interest” one—are not given nearly enough time to breathe, even by the standard of similar family films. If you were hoping for some Paper Mario-style lore—or even a focused, character-heavy, Super Mario Adventures-style quest—you’ll end up disappointed.