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Movies and video games have changed a lot since the last time Mario and Luigi were on the big screen. When Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo played the titular roles in 1993’s Super Mario Bros., the concept of adaptation was very loose: The idea wasn’t to replicate the experience of playing a Mario video game but rather to build an original story for a different medium with some of the same names and characters. Decades later, viewers have come to expect much more faithful translations. And so we have a new Super Mario Bros. Movie, which looks and feels much closer to Nintendo’s iconic games — but, as a result, often feels like an extended cutscene.
The new animated movie from directors Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic (Teen Titans Go! To The Movies) opens with twin brothers Mario (Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day) working together as plumbers in a Brooklyn somewhat like our own. They suddenly get transported to another realm, where the warlord Bowser (Jack Black) is on the warpath against the Mushroom Kingdom ruled by Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy). While Luigi ends up captured by Bowser’s soldiers, Mario finds himself embedded with Peach and her Toads as they try to build a resistance movement.
Despite the storied iconography of these characters, The Super Mario Bros. Movie infuses them all with distinctly modern characterizations. Instead of being a helpless damsel, Peach is an incredibly skilled and capable warrior-ruler who runs circles around the male characters. A female protagonist for the Rey generation, this princess hardly needs rescuing; her goal is to protect her mushroom-headed subjects from Bowser’s wrath, while Mario just wants to save his brother. Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen) has the muscles to impress a colosseum crowd but remains desperate for the approval of his kingly father — he comes off like Succession’s Kendall Roy in a red tie.
Bowser, meanwhile, is portrayed as a lovesick playground bully who only knows how to express his unrequited affection for the princess by invading her kingdom. Black’s performance is the standout of this voice cast (which makes sense given his years of experience in the Kung Fu Panda franchise), and Bowser’s many parody songs expressing his love for Peach make great use of the Tenacious D vocalist’s unique skills.
When Peach and Mario are preparing to face off against Bowser, they basically play a classic Super Mario game: running across pipes and girders, grabbing power-up mushrooms, the works. But this movie takes just as much from other Mario-involved games like Super Smash Bros. and Mario Kart. Peach’s characterization is clearly influenced by modern archetypes of strong female protagonists, but it also fits perfectly for people who grow up playing her in Smash, where she is more than capable of beating up Bowser or Donkey Kong. The Mario Kart homage is more explicit, and the heroes’ race against Bowser’s Koopas down Rainbow Road joins the coconut pirates sequence from Moana in the amusing lineage of “kids’ movie homages to Mad Max: Fury Road.”
It’s all quite fun, with a good sense of humor and a consistent computer-animated aesthetic — plus, at 90 minutes including credits, it’s short, sweet, and over before anything can get annoying. But it’s hard to escape the feeling, especially during the aforementioned Rainbow Road sequence, that you would probably be having more fun just playing a game together instead. Grade: B-