‘The Super Mario Bros. Movie’ Stays Faithful to Classic Nintendo Game With Eye-Popping Energy

Here is a video game adaptation that quite literally stays true to the source material. “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” is the most accurate cinematic depiction you may ever get of the famous Nintendo title. If you were born in a timeline beginning with the 1980s then Mario and Luigi are there in your popular entertainment memories. Even if you never played the game you’ve seen the two plumbers somewhere. This movie has a particular, at times fleeting, charm that derives from how it simply imagines the game’s creations as a palpable, digitally possible world. In a way it’s an example of how animation is truly the only way to make a “Super Mario” movie. Talking mushroom people, warlord turtles and cocky gorillas wearing ties all make sense when illustrated. Forget the “story,” because it’s completely ludicrous. Switch off the need for narrative and this is a trippy experience full of absurd vistas bursting with color.

It’s recommended you don’t sit too far away from the screen so as to truly soak it in, like the hippies who used to drop LSD  during showings of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” There is a plot however. Mario (Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day) are Italian-American siblings and plumbers trying to get their business going in 1980s Brooklyn. No one takes them seriously, least of all their family with the exception of mom. When a water main break sends the pair rushing to prove themselves, something goes wrong and they are sucked into a portal. After traversing some colorful wormholes, they are separated but end up in another, quite sunny, dimension. Mario finds himself in the Mushroom Kingdom ruled by the sweet Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy). Her realm is currently being threatened by the Koopa Troop army of Bowser (Jack Black), a snarling turtle warlord who wants to marry Peach and rule the world. Bowser has captured Luigi, becoming very irritated at the prospect of his prisoner’s brother snatching away his bride.

Despite the older audience members who will be attending “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” brimming with nostalgia, it should be made clear this movie is more of a roller coaster for elementary schoolers. It doesn’t have the sense of overall lessons you get from “Captain Underpants” or “The Angry Birds Movie,” but there are some easily digestible themes. Bowser is a deluded thug who wants to force Peach into marriage. Mario and Luigi need to find the courage to believe in each other no matter what others think. The deepest character is a talking blue star in one of Bower’s dungeons, who cheerfully issues depressing observations about despair, death and how time is an illusion, like hope. Mario tends to inspire such ideas. The last feature film featuring the character was the now forgotten 1993 “Super Mario Bros.,” starring Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo in a grimy live-action take. It was a goofy dystopian vision with messages about totalitarianism. That’s how it was done in the ‘90s.

Directors Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic, with a team of brilliant animators, are really just using the story as a way to then dive headlong into Nintendo world. We’re taken on the trip of inhabiting the “Super Mario” environment, made so vivid with a rather astounding palette. The Mushroom Kingdom is bathed in blinding sunshine and cascading waterfalls. Bowser sits on a throne surrounded by rock and lava. Mario traverses the Mushroom Kingdom through pipes that crisscross forever, then battles Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen) in a stony arena where we can feel gravity slipping away when he needs to punch those famous power boxes from the game (granting him mushrooms that can either bulk his size or make him tiny). There’s a thrilling chase over a rainbow that feels like “Mad Max: Fury Road” meets “Tron.”  What the filmmaking team does is essentially transfer the experience of playing the game into something to be viewed, tied together by a sparse story. Mario jumping from box to box, evading Piranha Plants is turned into a real action scene. 

While the cast has some notables, their presence is barely felt considering the movie truly just exists as a visual delight. Jack Black is the one real standout as Bower. He has a moment of genuine comedy when playing a demented, Elton John-style serenade for Peach on his piano. Fred Armisen is Cranky Kong, who sees his son Donkey as a showboat and screw up. There’s nothing else to them. Bower’s own wedding scheme is as bad as any concocted by a lonely person with serious autonomy issues. His minions, like the sorcerer Kamek (Kevin Michael Richardson) are just there to make funny, squeaky noises. The real entertainment is in the exciting, grand action scenes where Mario and Luigi attain powers and do a lot of punching, gliding, spinning and setting off colorful explosions. These sequences have such impressive artistry it is fun to just marvel at them. Or consider some calmer moments full of operatic overkill, like Bower attacking a kingdom of penguins, emerging from the flames like something out of “Lord of the Rings.” Brian Tyler scores the movie with some grandiose sounds combined with Koji Kondo’s original Nintendo themes. 

For naysayers the question might be how else could you make a “Super Mario Bros.” movie? Video game adaptations have had poor reputations because of filmmakers trying too hard to adjust the game to a movie plot. Recent standouts like “The Last of Us” on HBO are an exception because the original game itself is essentially a film. “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” is a worthy take on its source material because it’s absolutely true to it. The recent “Sonic the Hedgehog” movies were hits, yet as stories they suffer from dumping the endless creativity of live action and attempting to find logic in its blue, sneaker-wearing hedgehog walking around the real world. “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” is designed to be looked at, with goofball humor that kids will like. They will at least also get a lesson in how forcing someone into marriage when they don’t like you and your rampaging armies is unacceptable. If you can’t accept this somewhat successful bit of movie candy on its own terms, you may have just grown out of it.

The Super Mario Bros. Movie” releases April 5 in theaters nationwide.