"The Super Mario Bros. Movie" hits the ground running from its first frame, throwing video game and pop culture references at you with such relentless abandon that you're left gasping for air. It whizzes by at breakneck speed, so much so that it neglects to slow down and find an identity of its own.
It won't take long for viewers to notice that the animated new release, which Universal Pictures plopped into thousands of multiplex screens on Wednesday to take full advantage of Easter weekend family crowds, is less a movie than a string of callouts and Easter eggs. It's engineered to elicit Pavlovian glee from multiple generations of viewers who grew up playing the video games featuring the titular siblings, first in video arcades and later on decades' worth of game consoles.
But despite its compact running time (92 minutes, a throwback to a time when family films clocked in way south of the two-hour mark), the frisson of pleasure from catching all the Nintendo shout outs goes from amusing to grating pretty quickly. Viewers looking for a little narrative meat, or at the very least characters worth caring about, will likely walk away disheartened and dissatisfied. Memo to directors Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic: seeing corporate symbols go through the motions of a half-baked story isn't much fun.
And it really didn't have to be this way. Illumination, the animation studio behind the “Despicable Me” and “Sing” movies, seemed to be a good fit to bring the adventures of spunky plumber Mario (the voice of Chris Pratt), his fragile and nervous baby bro/business partner Luigi (Charlie Day), no-nonsense Mushroom Kingdom ruler Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy), comic-relief sidekick Toad (Keegan-Michael Key), and simian adversary Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen) to the screen with the kid-friendly pizzazz the material begs for.
Sadly, the end result is trapped in an aesthetic tug of war between the cartoonish character design and the more photorealistic action that undermines the movie's appeal over and over again. It boggles the mind that the filmmakers took a look at this intellectual property and said, "Yep, mind-numbing destruction porn is precisely what this material needs to make it pop."
"Super Mario Bros." makes its first mistake right out of the gate, with a prologue that tips its hat to Tolkien while draining the mystery and sense of wonder the movie could have possessed if it had allowed viewers to discover its magical realms through Mario and Luigi's eyes, “Wizard of Oz”-style.
The very first shot shows chunks of lava falling on the ground like embers with the texture of feces, a harbinger of things to come. Bowser (Jack Black), a fire-breathing destroyer of worlds and, as screenwriter Matthew Fogel keeps reminding us, the king of the turtle-like Koopas, razes the ice castle of some cute anthropomorphic penguins to the ground in seconds, allowing the power-hungry antagonist to grab a star (think of a horcrux in the “Harry Potter” movies) that could potentially deliver the colorful Mushroom World, with its shades of Emerald City, into his paws.
"Super Mario Bros." then sends viewers to Brooklyn, where Mario and Luigi struggle to find customers for their plumbing services, to one-dimensional derision from a local bully and underdeveloped disappointment from their father. The joke here is that the stereotypical Italian accents are an act, something the brothers play up in their TV ad. Alas, like most of the movie's stabs at humor, it lands with a dull thud.
The sole bright spot in this section is a sequence that shows Mario and Luigi dealing with an entitled dog while attempting to fix a leaky bathroom faucet in an upscale home. The canine in question is reminiscent of Illumination's successful but somewhat underappreciated “The Secret Life of Pets,” and some of the sight gags here suggest the movie that could have been if Horvath and Jelenic weren't so hellbent on jamming their reference checklist down viewers' throats.
Wandering into what seems like an abandoned building in an attempt to fix a water main rupture, Mario and Luigi are whisked into an alternate dimension via what looks and feels like a wormhole. The inseparable brothers are split up in the process, and it's up to Mario to save the day. The vertically challenged New Yorker with the paintbrush mustache seeks help from Princess Peach and embarks on a journey that will bring the ultimate test of his character.
Problem is, the movie zips from one scene to the next without leaving much of an impression, prioritizing its parade of artifacts over the brothers' fierce bond and the characters' respective arcs. Viewers impressed by how closely the characters look to the way they do in the games may not mind how the movie squanders its potential at just about every turn. Maybe they should care, because the word that comes to mind when reflecting on the artistic commitment on display is lazy.
And the void at the center of this shiny fan-service trinket is Pratt, a woefully uninspired choice to voice Mario. The “Guardians of the Galaxy” star is just as generic as he appears in the trailers and is an all too appropriate representation of how unremarkable this movie is. (Day, by contrast, acts circles around his co-star, but his character is given short shrift, sidelined for far too long.) Joy and Rogen do what they can, but the writing simply does not give them much to work with, leaving Black to chew the scenery while neglecting to flesh out his lust for domination and unrequited feelings toward Peach.
A widely lambasted 1993 live-action adaptation of the games, unseen by me, starred Bob Hoskins as Mario, John Leguizamo as Luigi and Dennis Hopper as Bowser. It was dismissed as bizarre and nonsensical at the time of its release, but it's clear the older film's directors, Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton, opted against playing it safe the way the new production does.
But credit should be given where it is due, and for several enjoyable minutes, “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” comes to life when it pays tribute to “Super Mario Kart.” Instead of a race track, Mario and the other drivers glide across a rainbow speedway, with visual cues from the “Mad Max” movies and, for older viewers, Blake Edwards' “The Great Race.” The sequence's DayGlo hues stand out in sharp relief to the dearth of creativity to which the film frequently falls prey.
This synthetic and half-hearted concoction made a killing at the box office this weekend, to the tune of an estimated $204.6 million in its first five days of release in North America, but it fails to fire up the imagination. Hobbled by wafer-thin characters, a shell of a boilerplate narrative and cringe-inducing needle drops, it settles for giving mass audiences of various age groups what they want, and that's just depressing. It amounts to insipid gamer catnip with nothing to say, when it could have been so much more. Can I have my quarters back?
“The Super Mario Bros. Movie” has invaded multiplexes across the country, including IMAX engagements at Regal South Beach, AMC Aventura, AMC Sunset Place, the CMX Cinemas at Dolphin Mall and the AutoNation IMAX in downtown Fort Lauderdale. It is also showing at the Nite Owl Drive-In + Tropical Market in Miami.