The last time Mario — the lovably high-voiced moustachioed Italian plumber, and the most iconic name in video games — starred in a film, it bombed so badly that Nintendo waited 30 years before giving their mascot another crack at the big screen. Now something of an oddball cult classic, the 1993 Bob Hoskins-starring live-action version was both a strangely realistic take on the game (Mario is fixing broken dishwashers and worrying about paying rent) and bafflingly outlandish (it is partly set in a dino-steampunk parallel dimension), bearing only tangential resemblance to the source material. This lively new animated version, on the other hand, is deeply faithful — to a fault.
This is exactly what you might expect from a Super Mario Bros. movie. It’s like a greatest hits parade of the franchise: there’s the rainbow road from Mario Kart, the spooky house from Luigi’s Mansion, the New Donk City level from Super Mario Odyssey, the moons from Super Mario Galaxy, and more obscure Easter Eggs besides (listen out for the GameCube start-up sound). The story borrows mechanics and terminology from the game, too: there are power-ups, blue shells and a side-scrolling mission. Brian Tyler’s score never misses an opportunity to borrow some of Koji Kondo’s gloriously recognisable musical motifs, either.
It’s-a-gonna win many box-office gold coins, no doubt. But the Bob Hoskins version is far more imaginative.
It’s all laser-designed to tickle the nostalgia adenoids of Nintendo nerds. But it ultimately never feels more than just a very high-definition, feature-length video game cutscene – the bit you sit through while waiting to play the actual game. While a training montage sequence hints at the repetitive trial-and-error of the original NES title, what follows only confirms that the real joy of these games was, first and foremost, the gorgeously designed, addictively satisfying gameplay.
Without that here, we’re left only with the characters, which are as thin as an 8-bit image file, and, with the possible exception of Jack Black (who brings a Tenacious D energy to his Bowser), entirely miscast. There’s an admirable attempt to explain this away, but in a world where everyone already knows exactly what Mario sounds like — the movie itself even reminds us, in a cameo from long-standing voice actor Charles Martinet — Chris Pratt’s take simply doesn’t sound like Mario. (The Mario family as a whole, incidentally, are the most egregious Italian stereotypes to be seen this side of a Dolmio advert; how many “Mamma Mia!”s does it take to constitute a hate crime?)
This comes from Illumination, a studio that never quite earned the critical cred of rivals like Pixar or Cartoon Saloon, but through their Minions and Sing franchises have certainly figured out how to make millions of family-friendly dollars. You feel that half-term hymn sheet being sung from in the endless peril, the bright colours, the largely unfunny gags, the empty sentiment (“Nothing can hurt us as long as we’re together!”). The studio brings experience and talent; the standard of animation, crisply rendered and richly art-directed, is undeniably high. It’s-a-gonna win many box-office gold coins, no doubt. But the Bob Hoskins version is, if nothing else, far more imaginative.