Super Mario Movie Sounds Shockingly Good, Or Pretty Bad Depending On Who You Ask

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Mario and Luigi look shocked as the money pours in.

The reviews for The Super Mario Bros. Movie are in and they’re surprisingly polarized. Mario’s return to Hollywood may end up being a box office coup, but not all of the critics are in love with it. It’s currently under 50 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.

The Verge is calling it “the new gold standard for video game films.” Yahoo! But Polygon describes it as “endless nostalgia bait with no hook of its own.” Oh, no! So far the nays seem to be strongly outweighing the yays, but it also sounds like the type of movie you might expect from Minions studio Illumination: overstuffed with jokes, incredibly polished, and maybe a bit empty.

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The Super Mario Bros. Movie releases on April 5 and stars Chris Pratt (Mario), Anya Taylor-Joy (Peach), Charlie Day (Luigi), Jack Black (Bowser), and a host of other big-name talent, but you probably already knew that since the marketing machine has been firing on all cylinders everywhere all the time. It’s Nintendo’s first stab at a feature length film since Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo’s ill-fated but morbidly charming 1993 live action recreation, and comes on the heels of the Switch’s incredible console sales and a Super Nintendo World theme park that just opened in California.

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Pratt’s weird Mario voice and a brewing fan backlash against Seth Rogen’s Donkey Kong aside, the finished product sounds incredibly fun, agreeable, and inoffensive, perhaps to a fault. “From its very first scenes, it’s clear The Super Mario Bros. Movie is made for children,” writes our sister-site, io9. Fair enough. It also sounds like a fan wiki brought to life rather than a complete story. “For those with even a passing familiarity with Nintendo, watching the film is like cosplaying as the Leonardo DiCaprio pointing meme,” noted the AV Club in its review. Here’s what other reviews are saying so far:

The movie works, though, because as it’s building toward its logical and very traditional Mario kind of ending, it uses every possible opportunity it has to make its various fantastical worlds feel like living, breathing, organic places that you’d want to spend hours exploring if they were parts of an open-world video game. It’s cool as hell every single time someone’s outfit transforms after they ingest mushroom power-ups, but it’s things like being able to see each of the individual seeds on a fire flower’s face flicking like a candle that really make you appreciate how hard the movie’s working to get things “right.”

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Jack Black’s Bowser feels like the standout vocal performance as the actor’s trademark bombast fits well with the Koopa King’s outsized sense of self. Bowser’s thirst for power isn’t explored in any serious way: he wants to take over the Mushroom Kingdom because he’s a bad guy and that’s what bad guys do – apparently he missed the point of that group session in Wreck-it Ralph. But Black’s Bowser is frightening, impetuous, and desperate for attention at times, and those frequent mood shifts lend his scenes unpredictability. Jables’ Bowser even performs a ballad in Peach’s honor which feels like a safe-for-work Tenacious D b-side, a descriptor I can’t imagine will upset any fans of Black’s musical chops.

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Reverence is the goal here, haunted perhaps by the ghost of 1993’s Super Mario Bros., a legendary live-action boondoggle that pleased neither Nintendo, nor its fans, nor filmgoers with its weird, dystopian take on the plucky plumbers’ journey through the Mushroom Kingdom. (Even if it has slowly crept toward cult-favorite status in the intervening 30 years.) This new take on Mario is so faithful in its efforts to recreate iconography from four decades of video games that there’s almost no energy left to expend on reaching the unconverted. The Super Mario Bros. Movie is a sermon for the Nintendo faithful and their children, and few others.

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That’s pretty much how it goes across the board for the voice talent. Nobody is bad, and they’re all funny when they need to be in basically the ways you would expect. Seth Rogen plays Donkey Kong like he’s a Seth Rogen character in a stoner movie. Bowser, likewise, pretty much just is Jack Black, complete with a musical number that sounds like a Tenacious D ballad. Nothing to complain about there, certainly—like most of the jokes in The Super Mario Bros. Movie, the song is funny! But it’s not too funny. It’s normal funny.

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The key thing “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” has that too many animated films don’t — I would say, without overstating it, that it links the film to the spirit of “Yellow Submarine” — is a rollicking aesthetic of transmutation. We know that Mario can balance on a girder to face off against Donkey Kong, even as Donkey Kong’s dad, Cranky Kong (voiced by Fred Armisen with the kind of extreme New York accent that somehow feels right at home in the Jungle Kingdom), cheers for Mario’s demise. But when Mario wins the duel by transforming himself into a cat, all because he is now wearing a furry cat costume, that’s pure video-game surrealism. I change identity by tapping a Power-up box, therefore I am.

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The plot is as basic as can be, and character development is clearly not a priority. Considering Day’s terrific voice work as Luigi, it seems a shame that the character disappears for such long stretches. But directors Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic, creators of the Teen Titans Go! series, deliver a reasonably faithful big screen adaptation that, while it features plenty of juvenile humor, wisely doesn’t lean toward broad satire.

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The film, then, does relatively little to justify its existence outside of serving as brand extension. It’s bright, bounces from one nostalgia-soaked moment to the next, and is meticulously designed to be as inoffensive as possible. But while presenting the long-standing characters of the Super Mario Bros. universe in the most innocuous light imaginable may please shareholders, given the innovative design of many a Super Mario Bros. game, would it have been too much for the film’s story to be a little more, well, super?

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But even if it’s not your thing, everyone should find a way to coexist with this franchise very quickly. Because it’s hard to see a future where we don’t get a lot more of these. “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” is a true masterclass in exploiting juicy IP, building out an intricate-yet-familiar world that’s littered with video game Easter eggs that could set up other movies. A spin-off film about Rogen’s Donkey Kong has been rumored for a while, and it seems inevitable that another half dozen have been sketched out on a whiteboard somewhere.

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Matthew Fogel, the screenwriter, has done an efficient job of linking the various references, but the film has an astonishing lack of jokes, twists, memorable lines, exhilarating stunts, touching emotional moments, and anything else that might engage any viewer who isn’t playing spot-the-allusion. As slick and corporate as The Super Mario Bros Movie is, it has a first-draft laziness that’s rare in big-screen animation. When Mario is learning to be a hero, Bonnie Tyler’s Holding Out for a Hero is slapped on the soundtrack. When Mario and Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen) fight in an arena, Kong impersonates Russell Crowe in Gladiator. Does either of those choices seem funny or surprising to you?

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