Super Mario Bros. is an almost perfect kids film. It's stunningly animated, it has enough momentum to keep youngins from being bored, and almost every character is unique and likable (even Bowser himself, thanks to the comedic stylings of Jack Black). It's clear that Nintendo didn't want to repeat the mistakes of that other Mario movie, the live-action 1993 film that's ironically beloved by some '90s kids (it's all we had!), but ultimately failed to capture the magic of the games. This film, meanwhile, is chock full of everything you'd remember from Nintendo's ouvre. It's a nostalgic romp for adults, and it's simply a fun time for children.
But boy is it safe. Maybe I'm a bit spoiled by the excellent non-Pixar animated films we've seen over the last decade, especially the ones that Phil Lord and Chris Miller have touched (The Lego Movie! Into the Spider-Verse!). But it's glaringly obvious Nintendo didn't want to take any major creative risks with this adaptation. The script from Matthew Fogel is filled with enough humor and references to keep us from feeling bored, and directors Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic deliver some inspired sequences. But it's almost like the film is trapped in a nostalgia castle thanks to the whims of an aging corporate dinosaur. (Bear with me.)
That wasn't a problem for the kids in my matinee audience, but it's a bit disappointing if you've waited decades to see a truly great Mario adaptation. It's in line with the recent live-action Sonic the Hedgehog movie — Super Mario Bros. is "fine." There's no attempt to achieve anything deeper than the basics: Mario (voiced by Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day) are two floundering Brooklyn plumbers who are inexplicably transported to the Mushroom Kingdom. Luigi, ever the scaredy-cat, is almost instantly captured by Bowser's minions, and it's up to Mario and Princess Peach (an effervescent Anya Taylor-Joy) to save him. Big bad Bowser, meanwhile, has plans to either marry Peach or, barring that, take over the kingdom.
The film bombards you with an endless series of references from the start – just look at all those Punch-Out! characters on the wall! – something that will either delight longtime Nintendo fans or make your eyes roll. Personally, though, I mostly enjoyed seeing how all of the nostalgia fodder was deployed (the adorably fatalistic Lumalee from Mario Galaxy practically steals the film). The filmmakers also show off plenty of visual flair, like an early scene in Brooklyn that rotates into a 2D chase sequence. If only some of the musical choices were more creative. (A Kill Bill reference? Bonnie Tyler's "Holding Out for a Hero" during Mario's training montage? Come on.)
It's always nice to see kids movies reach far beyond our expectations — The Lego Movie wrestled with the prison of capitalism, the importance of pushing against restrictive social expectations and how fandom can ruin the thing you actually love, all in addition to being a fun adventure for kids and injecting a dose of smart humor for adults. In Super Marios Bros., Mario learns to eat mushrooms because they literally make him big and strong. What subtext!
At the same time, I can still respect a movie that simply accomplishes its goal of entertaining children. Over the years, I've been subjected to plenty of truly awful kid's films with ugly animation and production design, lazy writing, and zero creative vision. I wish I could reclaim the time I spent watching Space Jam: A New Legacy or the 2011 Smurfs movie. The Super Mario Bros. may be a bit basic and safe, but it's not a waste of time.