“The Super Mario Bros. Movie” is jointly directed by Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic (Cartoon Network’s “Teen Titans Go”) and boasts an ensemble voice cast that includes Chris Pratt (“Jurassic World,” 2015), Charlie Day (FX’s “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” 2005-present), Anya Taylor-Joy (“The Menu,” 2022) and Jack Black (“Weird: The Al Yankovic Story,” 2022), among a host of others. In the film, Brooklyn-based Italian-American plumbers Mario (Pratt) and Luigi (Day) have just quit their jobs at Wrecking Crew to start their new business as plumbing contractors. A failed set of contracts later, Mario engages in a Hail Mary that lands them hurtling down a warp pipe to another dimension.
Sure, the cliff-notes version of Matthew Fogel’s (“Minions: The Rise of Gru”) writing doesn’t scream the next arthouse masterpiece. Still, Horvath and Jelenic’s exciting, fluid vision helps turn it into a reasonably immersive experience. It helps that the animation looks the best any Illumination-produced film has looked in ages, with a whirlwind of gorgeous color, lighting, and object renders that often look impressively photorealistic.
The director duo’s tongue-in-cheek humor perfectly fits the video game franchise’s bumbling physical comedy. They often use it in some of the most stellar game-inspired platforming set pieces of “The Super Mario Bros. Movie.” A specific sequence set across the streets of Brooklyn is a gorgeous nod to the 2D platformer aesthetic. It might be my favorite adaptation of the gamified visual look to the big screen since “Tron: Legacy.”
“The Super Mario Bros. Movie” might often be too visually faithful to the source material, with a lot of iconography making it into the narrative—sometimes more than usual. A horror-inspired scene has Luigi trying to find his way through the Dark Land and feels like an on-the-nose throwback to the franchise’s spin-off video game “Luigi’s Mansion” (2001). Most other visual and narrative cues take a lot of inspiration from “Super Mario 3D World” (2013) and—much less obviously—”Super Mario Odyssey” (2017). However, Horvath, Jelenic, and Fogel more than compensate for it with subtle shake-ups that make the movie more interesting.
Exaggerating Luigi’s jumpy nature, the makers turn Princess Peach into more of a modern queen of the mushroom kingdom and give her a lot more balance and agency as part of her character. Taylor-Joy seems to be having a lot of fun voicing Peach, and she’s complemented very well by Pratt and Black in her interactions with them. From an attempt at a mutually beneficial allyship between kingdoms to strategizing at mitigation and being prepped for combat, Peach is given a legitimate character arc that matches her title. This is not novel for the multimedia franchise; Nintendo’s 3DS video game “Super Princess Peach” does much of the saving as a playable character, even if it’s not in a similar context.
Pratt and Day—in particular—really nail the Italian-American accent without hamming it up. Their characters are basically Underdog 101 and go through the same beats as in most underdog movie tropes. This doesn’t make them any less enjoyable to engage with but builds them up competently enough to a point where you’re more likely to be driven to tears in many portions of the third act. Black as Bowser balances terrifying and hilarious without missing a single beat. Keegan-Michael Key (“Dolemite is My Name,” 2019) and Fred Armisen (“Battle of the Sexes,” 2017) are great. Still, of the supporting cast, it’s Jelenic’s daughter Juliet, who voices the nihilistic, suicidal Lumalee who steals the show throughout. Every time Lumalee’s on screen, her deadpan voice makes for insanely discomforting gallows humor that nails it on the head throughout the movie’s runtime—to the point it made me wonder if there are licensed therapists in the Mushroom Kingdom.
While it won’t impress everyone, “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” is good comfort food. It’s a gorgeous love letter to the Super Mario franchise’s visual artistry and gives some great nods to its earliest gameplay style. With great turns from a stacked voice cast, it’s a fun (if often derivative) movie that knows exactly what it is and makes you want to wrap yourself in a blanket and watch on a lazy Saturday afternoon. Recommended.