It's a commonly accepted issue now that video game properties struggle when translated to film. Almost without exception, every attempt has been met with either apathy or intense disappointment, and a certain amount of befuddlement at why it has proven so hard. If they can turn a theme park ride or a collection of small coloured bricks into a great film, why not a video game? There are a number of potential reasons, some obvious (that the relationship between a player and a game is an active one, where film and television necessitate a degree of passivity) and some more complex (that, unlike film, narrative is not a primary concern for video games). There is also a uncomfortable hierarchy between the two forms, video games (unfairly) seen as subservient to film. There are a lot of hurdles to jump here, but with most video game adaptations often in the hands of major studios with a considerable financial imperative, the kind of storytelling daring that creates the greatest of video games simply isn't possible in studio filmmaking.
This sense of daring feels particularly pertinent when discussing the latest attempt to shatter the glass ceiling for video game films, the highly-anticipated 'The Super Mario Bros. Movie', based on one of the most successful and beloved video game franchises. Super Mario in particular thrives on its interactivity and its self-guided level-structured game play, so while the visual world of the games makes sense for an animated film in particular, the film was going to need a strong narrative and emotional conceit to rest itself on to be distinct. As expected, the visuals of this adaptation from directors Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic exceed expectations, but when out comes to narrative and character, the film wastes its one life.
Mario (Chris Pratt, 'Guardians of the Galaxy') and his brother Luigi (Charlie Day, 'The Lego Movie') have just opened a new plumbing business in Brooklyn (instead of thick Italian accents, we get thick Brooklyn accents instead), but while trying to help out on a major public works issue, they fall through a pipe and end up in an alternate galaxy. Mario finds himself in the fantastical Mushroom Kingdom, guided by small mushroom man Toad (Keegan-Michael Key, 'Toy Story 4') to the castle of Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy, 'Emma.'). Luigi however has been captured by the turtle army of Bowser (Jack Black, 'King Kong'), a giant turtle who plans to invade the Mushroom Kingdom and force Princess Peach to marry him. After training Mario, Peach brings him and Toad along to ask for help from the Kong Kingdom to save Luigi and stop Bowser's army. Teaming up with their king Cranky Kong (Fred Armisen, TV's 'Portlandia') and his jock son Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen, 'The Fabelmans'), the team prepare to fight Bowser, save the kingdoms and reunite Mario with his brother.
SWITCH: 'THE SUPER MARIO BROS. MOVIE' FINAL TRAILER
Considering the vast scope of the Mario franchises, from the original side-scrolling platformers to the sensory insanity of Super Mario Kart, it would have been a waste if 'The Super Mario Bros. Movie' didn't look incredible, and thankfully it achieves this in spades. The quality of the animation is remarkable, but even more so is the art direction and production design. Each of the kingdoms is vividly and beautifully realised, embracing the fantastical video game aesthetic without feeling the need to compromise. It's big, it's colourful and each shot is composed as if these landscapes were the setting for a live-action epic. The worlds are also filled with so much detail from the games, often (and to its great advantage) without the need to point it out. It's a trick akin to the way 'Pokemon Detective Pikachu' (2019) just had Pokemon walking around without ever having to be self-conscious about it. The world feels busy and alive, not knowing every little detail isn't a detriment to those (like myself) with limited knowledge of the games and becomes a charming easter egg for those that do. Speaking with my far more knowledgable friend afterwards, they also pointed out that Brian Tyler's frenetic, whole-heartedly playful score functions in the same way, pulling on the rich musical library composed by Kaji Kondo for the games. The character designs are also carefully recreated, down to Peach's wonderfully garish dresses. The world of 'The Super Mario Bros. Movie' is such a complete creation, realised with great care and a healthy dose of visual wit, and in most of the set pieces, there's a wonderful marriage of cinematic language and original game play, again without being self-conscious or apologetic. It's all so visually and aurally inviting, and you just want to tumble head-first into it all.
And yet, the film ultimately prevents you from doing so. As great as the world-building is, the screenplay from Matthew Fogel is so lacklustre as to be non-existent. You can't even call it "functional" because it's barely able to do that, feeling more like a sketch than a fully-developed film script. The story itself is neither here nor there, as blandly basic as it was probably always going to be, but only perfunctory attention is paid to any kind of character development. You never feel like you get to know who these characters are, especially Peach who suffers the most, and even the more interesting dynamics (such as the relationship between Mario and Luigi, arguably the heart of the film) don't have anywhere to go when the narrative separates them for most of the run time and relegates Luigi to a background character. It's great how much effort was put into the animation, but no amount of visual flair can make up for a lacklustre screenplay to support it, especially when the world is so rich and the script is so bland. The same can be said for the voice performances, which are, across the board, perfunctory at best. There's nothing distinct or imaginative about any of them, perhaps held back by the emptiness of the script. Hell, I found myself longing for Mario to have a thick, stereotypical Italian accent if only so that at least one of the performances had a bit of flavour.
The world of 'The Super Mario Bros. Movie' is such a complete creation, realised with great care and a healthy dose of visual wit, and in most of the set pieces, there's a wonderful marriage of cinematic language and original game play, without being self-conscious or apologetic.
It's the disconnect between the world of the film and the story it is telling that makes 'The Super Mario Bros. Movie' not only disappointing (which is probably what we were all expecting) but, more so, frustrating. What we have makes it clear that a really great movie was possible here, if only the film allowed itself to be as witty as the animation. It all takes itself just that bit too seriously. I mean, the whole thing is so inherently silly, so why not embrace that? Why not go bigger, broader, more bombastic, more dynamic? I kept thinking of this film in comparison to 'The Lego Movie', a genuine marvel that was willing to be sincere and completely stupid all at once. Its brilliance was in how willing it was to be dangerous and push its audience's expectations. That same opportunity is right there in 'The Super Mario Bros. Movie', or even to have the same irreverence that makes 'Pokemon Detective Pikachu' so charming. Instead, the film plays it so frustratingly, unimaginatively safe, so instead of it feeling like a fools errand to attempt it to begin with, the results are worse: a genuinely missed opportunity.
There is certainly a wit and charm to 'The Super Mario Bros. Movie', especially when in the action sequences when the white-bread screenplay and uninspired voice performances fall away. I just found myself wishing the film was more interested in cultivating that wit and charm, all the more baffling when your directing team are alumni of the 'Teen Titans Go!' franchise. For audiences with an emotional connection to the Mario franchises, I suspect this will play beautifully (at least on first viewing), because to give the film its well-deserved credit, a tremendous amount of care has been taken to translating those worlds to the screen. It's an undeniable triumph in that regards, capturing a fundamental aspect of the video game experience to the screen without compromising or losing its magic. Once again though, cinematic storytelling doesn't come to the table with much else to offer. What could have been a bombastic, rollercoaster fun ride is instead little more than a shrug.