Only 30% of gamers are under the age of 18, according to market research. A Nintendo-commissioned survey found that the same demographic represented only 17% of the highest-intent buyers for their Switch console. These data points may be entirely out of mind for anyone watching “The Super Mario Bros. Movie.” Yet they were almost assuredly top of mind for the team making the film.
READ MORE: ‘The Super Mario Bros. Movie’: The Nintendo Gang Get All Mario Karted In Final Trailer
This computer-animated take on the most recognizable video game characters of all time feels like it responds to market, not narrative, imperatives. It’s the cinematic equivalent of taking out a “Big Game spot” during the Super Bowl to blare corporate priorities at a target audience. It’s a pretty smart strategy: hook aging millennials who are birthing the next generation of gamers with nostalgia so they will pass their love along to children. But instead of lasting 90 seconds, this lasts 90 minutes.
Maybe because it isn’t particularly subtle, “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” doesn’t feel quite as insidious as other movies of its ilk that feel more sponsored content than a filmed screenplay. It’s a film that’s both harmless and yet hard to embrace. Directors Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic guide viewers at a breakneck pace through vividly rendered versions of familiar settings to N64 and Switch gamers alike. Screenwriter Matthew Fogel powers through any number of fantastical physical challenges led by Mario (voice of Chris Pratt) as he attempts to reunite with his separated brother Luigi (voice of Charlie Day) within the Mushroom Kingdom. It’s a need for speed that only a joystick could love.
What’s missing from “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” is any sense of real joy in marveling at the creation of entire realms of pixels from whole cloth. There’s a nice moment of pause when Mario floats above the kingdom with Princess Peach (voice of Anya Taylor-Joy) as she looks at majestic structures poking up through the clouds and poignantly describes why she wants to protect the land. The film that exists around this scene lacks her sense of awe and urgency at creation.
As the film bops around with Pratt seemingly doing his best Rocket Raccoon impression from “Guardians of the Galaxy” co-star Bradley Cooper, it lacks a big idea beyond the inherent interest generated by reimagining familiar cultural figures. Just looking at some of its comps, arcade game-inspired “Wreck-It Ralph” and entertainment trailblazer “The LEGO Movie” both found that imagination was a force binding all the disparate gaming elements together. It was not only a message for the characters on-screen but also one meant to inspire action away from it … ideally with some related merchandise.
The joy of gaming itself just never comes through in “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” as it barrels towards a head-to-head conclusion with the nefarious Bowser (voice of Jack Black). Horvath and Jelenic try out some interesting visualizations to replicate the spatial dynamics of a video game, such as a pan from left to right as Mario and Luigi navigate their way through an obstacle-laden construction site. A similar sense of motion within some of the more aerially-based challenges at least strives for the Roger Deakins-inspired cinematography of the “How to Train Your Dragon” series.
But there’s an unaddressed absence gnawing away at the film: the crucial participatory element of gaming. It can be entertaining to watch someone traverse some tricky terrain playing video games, but their appeal only makes sense when behind the controller oneself to get thrust into the game. With “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” locking the audience purely into the position of a spectator, it’s hard to understand what makes the property special. Perhaps the biggest problem the film faces is not one of its own makings. Hollywood has ripped off video game aesthetics for years now to try and compete for attention within its prized demographic of young males.
The film is in fact so busy introducing characters and churning through plot points that there’s not really even time to let animation powerhouse Illumination give it a spin of inspired silliness that made the “Despicable Me” franchise such an unexpected hit. Black, no stranger to animation after countless “Kung Fu Panda” films, is the most reliable laugh-getter of the bunch. He’s forced to sell a one-note gag about Bowser’s unrequited love for Peach, but its relative success speaks to his understanding of the need to commit.
Black might well be the only cast member of “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” who’s serving the audience first rather than the brand. He speaks to the core constituency of younger viewers as children, not just as future consumers. With media literacy where it is today alongside the swarm of advertisements vying for their eyeballs, maybe those kids won’t be able to tell the difference. But those who buy the tickets for them should know – and expect – something better. Respecting hallowed characters and respecting an audience should not be mutually exclusive options in entertainment. [C]