On the Screen: ‘Super Mario’ is shallow, but so much fun

“The Super Mario Bros. Movie” is far from perfect, but it’s a film I will treasure. The film is funny, it’s visually stunning, and it’s a joy to see the familiar Mario universe given a fresh take in this medium.

The film suffers from issues with light theming and an even lighter plot, but it’s a delightful romp packed with admiration for Mario’s more than 40-year history. It lovingly realizes iconic characters and imbues them with more character than they’ve ever enjoyed in their video game appearances.

“Super Mario Bros.” follows the titular Mario and his brother Luigi — they live in New York City and they’ve started their own business. They struggle to reconcile their aspirations against a lack of support from their family — especially their father.

The two get transported through a magic warp pipe into the more recognizable fantasy world of the video games, where King Bowser is on a path of domination to the Mushroom Kingdom and Princess Peach’s castle.

The film largely explores themes of family and ambition, centered on Pratt’s Mario. He is on a relentless quest to save his brother, and though he fails frequently, he becomes a hero because he persists.

The film selects concepts liberally from across the Mario canon and its spin-offs, spanning franchise history. Considerable time is spent with the Kongs of Donkey Kong Country, and perhaps the most fun is a sequence based on Mario Kart and its infamous Rainbow Road.

Black’s Bowser is easily the standout performer. He is delightfully weird as the iconic villain, pursuing Peach’s hand in marriage above world domination. “Peaches,” a surprise musical number carried by Black alone, is perhaps the best joke in the film, and it received a very warm response from my Saturday evening showing.

Through it all, “Super Mario” is consistently fun and funny — though its plot is paper-thin and its themes are similarly shallow. Part of that is probably an issue stemming from the source material — there are few Mario games with much of a story to boast of. This is unquestionably a problem, but I found myself well enough charmed to remain entertained as the film moves from joke to joke and set piece to set piece at a breakneck speed.

The biggest issue with this film is the way it seemed afraid to follow through on its most interesting creative swings.

Princess Peach, who in the video games largely exists just to be captured by Bowser, is redesigned here as a very cool and capable wartime leader. Peach is far more experienced than Mario, and performer Anya Taylor-Joy balances that more hardened surface with a very fun sense of wonder at the larger universe clearly left to be explored in future films.

Somehow, despite being the most interesting character in the film, this new Peach who is set up as an equal to Mario — or his superior — ends up constantly taking a backseat. Even when she is set for an exciting third act action scene, the film far-too-quickly cuts away to him instead.

The score, by Brian Tyler, faces a similar struggle. It’s nothing short of incredible — blending an original theme with countless motifs and musical quotes from across the Mario games and beyond. Hearing the recognizable tunes was exciting — and immediately reestablishes the familiar soundscape of the franchise.

In addition to the score, there’s several licensed pop songs that are used in various scenes. These in every case felt bizarrely out of place and failed to add anything to the film.

Folks on Twitter and TikTok have since lined up unused tracks from Tyler’s officially released score to each of those moments. One, “Drivin’ Me Bananas,” is an bombastic knockout that was tragically omitted. It elicits far more emotion than “Take On Me” ever could.

With both the score and Princess Peach, it feels like the film was scared to take a big swing and make something more unique and interesting. These are things easily bettered in the inevitable sequels, alongside issues with plot and themes.

For kids, “Super Mario” was always a safe bet from Illumination, a studio that’s been churning out movies like “Despicable Me” and the “Secret Life of Pets.” For anyone “hooked on the brothers,” this film absolutely delivers — in more than just nostalgia. Others may find the lack of substance leaves them wanting, but I found more to engage with here than the last “Minions” film.

A sequel — and spin-offs — have been long rumored but not yet confirmed. The film teases a sequel and the film has been an overwhelming financial success — already the highest grossing video game adaptation ever made, Illumination’s largest debut, and the largest opening of 2023. It’s certainly only a matter of time before official word comes of further outings for these characters. I’ll certainly be back in the theater for whatever else this franchise has to give — and keeping my fingers crossed that one of those future entries is based on Super Mario Galaxy.

“The Super Mario Bros. Movie” is playing this weekend at Kenai Cinemas, the Orca Theater and the Homer Theater. Check showtimes and purchase tickets at catheaters.com, orcatheater.com and homertheatre.com.

Reach reporter Jake Dye at jacob.dye@peninsulaclarion.com.