“The Super Mario Bros. Movie” opens in Brooklyn with the plumbers Mario (Chris Pratt) and his brother Luigi (Charlie Day) trying to get their new business off the ground. Some Nintendo easter eggs in the background of these initial scenes should produce a small smile from people of my generation, and there’s a bit of inspiration structurally, like a clever early shot in which Mario and Luigi race through the city in a side-scrolling manner that mimics the earlier games. There’s also a nod to The Odyssey on a bookshelf in Mario’s room, implying that we’re about to watch a hero’s journey and a reference to the incredible Switch game. What follows doesn’t live up to either inspiration.
In a way that makes little sense, Mario and Luigi find a massive chamber of pipes under Brooklyn, get sucked into one, and end up in the Mushroom Kingdom, which is being threatened by the villainous Bowser (Jack Black). The notorious bad guy has found the Super Star he needs to make his final assault on Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy) and the residents of her kingdom, including Toad (Keegan-Michael Key). Bowser doesn’t just want power; he wants to make the Princess his bride, singing some truly uninspired songs about his love for her. How on Earth a film like this gets a rock talent like half of Tenacious D and doesn’t let him unleash a few clever Bowser tunes is one of this film’s many mysteries.
Although Luigi lands in the pipeline that drops him immediately in the dark lands and makes him Bowser’s prisoner—a dumb decision that sidelines him for an hour—Mario meets Princess Peach, who introduces him to power-ups. And so all the question-mark cubes get a chance to shine as Mario grows, shrinks, and even turns into a raccoon. They eventually recruit Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen), race down Rainbow Road, and save the day. That’s not a spoiler if you’ve ever seen a movie.
Fans of this movie will shout from the rooftops that the scripting for something called “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” doesn’t need to be a strength. And, to be fair, there are a few strong settings in terms of design. I enjoyed the choices made by the team in the structure of Donkey Kong Country, and the Rainbow Road “Super Mario Kart” sequence is well-directed. But I would ask why fans of a franchise that has inspired so much love for generations must be satisfied with the absolute minimum regarding storytelling.