Thirty years ago, the very first cinematic adaptation of a video game hit theaters. “Super Mario Bros.” based on the 1985 Nintendo game created by Shigeru Miyamoto didn’t exactly bring the game to life as much as it extrapolated a nightmarish cyberpunk world from its characters. “Max Headroom” directors Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel were tapped to direct, with Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo suiting up in the red and green as Mario and Luigi, the plumbers from Brooklyn.
The production was plagued by power struggles, with distributor Disney attempting an 11th hour swerve into something more kid-friendly than the edgy “‘Blade Runner’ for teens” vibe Morton and Jankel brought. Largely considered to be an unmitigated disaster at the time, the film is now a cult classic. But the “Mario” video games are more popular now than ever, and Nintendo must have felt they had some unfinished business. Hence, a new, animated, family-friendly version of the movie, courtesy of “Minions” production company Illumination Entertainment.
“The Super Mario Bros. Movie” garnered controversy upon announcement of its voice cast, with Chris Pratt due to voice the rotund, mustachioed plumber and the internet preemptively cringing at his potential delivery of Mario’s catchphrase, “It’s-a me, Mario!” Thankfully, the movie gets that out of the way almost immediately, thanks to a VHS-style TV ad for Mario and Luigi’s plumbing business where they affect exaggerated Italian accents. It’s a gambit that allows Pratt and Charlie Day, voicing Luigi, to quickly drop the act. But their vocal performances are so unremarkable that it could have been anyone at all.
The one vocal performance worth the price of admission is Jack Black as Bowser, the king of the Koopas, an intimidating turtle decked out in spikes, who has a penchant for heavy metal and a yearning for Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy). With Black on the mic, expect Bowser to belt a lot of rock ballads — a good third of this movie is basically a Tenacious D concept album.
Written by Matthew Fogel and directed by Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic, “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” is mildly amusing, swift, noisy and unrelentingly paced, which is par for the course considering this is the studio that brought us the Minions. At 92 minutes, it stretches a series of gameplay sequences across a barely there hero’s journey story. After Mario and Luigi are sucked into a mysterious pipe and transported to the parallel universe of the Mushroom Kingdom, Mario sets out to find and rescue his brother from Bowser with the help of Toad (Keegan-Michael Key) and Princess Peach, who is also attempting to evade Bowser’s invasion.
The film hops from set piece to set piece, and the animation is indeed eye-popping — some backgrounds and elements of this world are almost photorealistic. The style also liberates Mario’s activities from the flat horizontal landscapes with which we’re familiar, putting a more action-packed and dynamic point of view on his leaps and jumps across obstacles as he’s trained by the princess. He learns to use his power-ups, faces off with Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen), forging an unlikely alliance, and the crew hits the Rainbow Road in their Mario Karts.
It’s all set to a relentless score by Brian Tyler, while ‘80s needle drops hold together the thin story. A suggestion: we need a moratorium on Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out for a Hero” for at least five years until the song can regain its ironic magic. There aren’t many jokes that hit, but the cutely nihilist Lumalee (Juliet Jelenic) receives the most laughs.
Fortunately, this loud, hectic movie doesn’t overstay its welcome, but it wouldn’t have the material to last a second longer. It’s bright, busy, inoffensive and exactly the opposite of the weird, dark, edgy 1993 movie adaptation. That may be better for the business of Mario, but it’s not exactly terribly interesting either. “Wahoo!”? Not quite.
‘The Super Mario Bros. Movie’
Rating: PG, for action and mild violence
Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes
Playing: In general release