Last week, I wrote in my review of “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” that I wasn’t really familiar with the “Dungeons & Dragons” game, and that may have affected my enjoyment of the movie. There will be no such disclaimer for “The Super Mario Bros. Movie.” My brother and I were introduced to video games through “Super Mario Bros.” and “Donkey Kong Country.” I even tried playing the games myself sometimes, in between watching my brother play and actually win. So, while I’m not saying that I picked up on every Nintendo Easter Egg in this movie, there wasn’t much that caught me off-guard. And that’s kind of the problem, nothing here surprised me.
Brothers Mario (Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day) aren’t having much luck with their plumbing business in Brooklyn, but their fortunes could change if they can stop a massive flood. They follow the sewer system to a mysterious pipe, which they enter, only to be whisked away to the world of the Mushroom Kingdom, where they get split up. On top of being lost, stranded, and separated from his brother, Mario is trapped in a world that centers around his least-favorite pizza topping.
Mario makes fast friends with scrappy Mushroom Kingdom resident Toad (Keegan-Michael Key), who suggests they go to get help from Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy). She’s dealing with a problem of her own: an impending invasion by the evil Bowser (Jack Black) and his army of Koopas. Bowser has taken Luigi hostage, so Mario and Peach have a shared interest in his defeat. Mario and Toad accompany Peach on a mission to recruit the Kong army to combat the Koopas. King Cranky Kong (Fred Armisen) agrees to loan Peach his army if Mario can defeat his son Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen) in an arena battle. An alliance is soon formed, but Bowser isn’t far off.
Bowser, for his part, is probably the funniest character in the movie, thanks to three words: Jack Black singing. He has a diabolical plan to marry Peach, which he plans to do by force, but he also wants to do it the right way, with romance and attentiveness. “Adventure Time” had a storyline like this, and arguably, so did “Beauty and the Beast.” But this is the first one to throw in a Jack Black piano ballad.
Black’s performance is one of the few memorable things about this movie, the rest is pretty much disposable. Every time the movie gives us a funny joke or action beat, a lame one will come along to even it out, and vice versa. Very little falls above (or below, to be fair) the level of “middling.” I’ll say this: it was a good idea to make this movie animated. You just don’t get this brand of bright colors and bouncy movements in real life. Plus, I’ve seen portions of the yucky 1993 live-action movie. I haven’t seen it all the way through, but I think it’s safe to say that this is better.
By the time you read this, “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” will probably be the #1 movie of the year at the domestic box office, after a killer opening over Easter weekend. I’m glad that something is taking down the MCU mush that was “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,” especially given the whole MODOK fiasco. But I’d also like to see this movie taken down by something that I can actually recommend. This movie comes close to breaking the streak of the world never getting a single decent video game movie, it really does, but the jokes and action, not to mention some stiff voice performances (Taylor-Joy could have used a few more takes, so could Black when he’s delivering straight lines) just barely make this movie an underwater level.
“The Super Mario Bros. Movie” is rated PG for action and mild violence. Its running time is 92 minutes.
Robert R. Garver is a graduate of the Cinema Studies program at New York University. His weekly movie reviews have been published since 2006.