Review by C.J. Bunce
No matter your familiarity with Nintendo’s Mario and Luigi, or Donkey Kong, after watching The Mario Bros. Movie you won’t stop humming one of many video game themes it taps for its amazing soundtrack. Japan’s company Nintendo has always been about games, from its inception in 1889 making playing cards. Most of us first heard of the company in 1981 playing the video game Donkey Kong in the local arcade or Taco John’s. As new generations emerged, Nintendo grew its technology, and Donkey Kong’s story of Mario rescuing the Princess from the giant ape expanded into new games, console formats, and stories. It seems crazy it took this long for a big-budget, quality CG animated movie celebrating its world of characters. It’s now available for anyone at home via streaming provider Peacock. The movie arrives as a welcome surprise after we’ve seen every other video game adapted into a movie over the past 40 years. It’s also a very different kind of adaptation for the video game tie-in genre.
What is unique is how much the movie’s admittedly thin plot plays more like a long cartoon. It’s silly, it’s cute, and it’s very cartoony, but not in a negative way. I can’t say enough about the rousing musical score from Brian Tyler (Fast & Furious, The Expendables, and Scream franchise, Swamp Thing, Sleepy Hollow, Star Trek Enterprise), which is sweeping and exciting while incorporating songs from the games, along with the use of great pop songs at the right moments for humor sake. The cartoony vibe and that music call back to Warner Bros.’ Merrie Melodies cartoons with Bugs Bunny and Road Runner, which always used classical music for effect.
The bright colors and characters and sounds take over straight away, and you may not recognize the voice actors behind the scenes, except for Jack Black as the story’s villain Bowser, a giant ape-looking turtle that looks more like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles villains than the turtles themselves. Black is in full Jack Black mode here, complete with singing out his love for the Princess as only the Tenacious D singer could do, although his desire is more of the creepy stalker Beauty and the Beast’s Gaston brand of “love.”
Other voices seem more manipulated to fit the characters of Brooklyn plumbers Mario and Luigi, who are actually Italian but without the accent of their family members (except in a commercial for their business). You probably won’t recognize Seth Rogen as Donkey Kong, but Donkey Kong sounds like you’d expect him to. The Princess is easier to decipher as Anya Taylor-Joy. Chris Pratt as Mario and Charles Day as Luigi could have been played by anyone. Keegan-Michael Key is more recognizable as the mushroom man warrior called Toad. The most fun of all the characters is the quirky, spacey, oddly depressing, floating… thing… named Lumalee, played by Juliet Jelenic.
The fairy tale influences are as obvious as they were in every version of the video games. It’s a mishmash of the save-the-princess tale but with a princess that doesn’t need to be rescued. It’s the chocolate factory of Willy Wonka but if the mushrooms were more… hallucinogenic? The stakes are real but often deaths are like video game deaths–you put in your quarter and your character lives again. The show is so big and goofy it’s the rare movie that kids of any age could enjoy (the Mario Karts segment is a blast). Look for elements from The Wizard of Oz and The Jungle Book, too.
All the tropes are here, including the requisite training montage as Mario attempts a gauntlet straight out of the games to train to help the Princess. The movie is spectacularly light on pop culture Easter eggs, saving its time for throwbacks to the games themselves. It also misses several opportunities to recognize its own similarity to prior video games and their movie tie-ins, like Tron and Tron: Legacy. The biggest miss is not beginning the film as a live-action story with the actors playing the brothers, only to see them transform into animated characters once the brothers enter a time portal to fantasyland as they attempt to save Brooklyn from an impending drip-related disaster. (But maybe the studio was trying to dodge any comparison to the 1993 live-action adaptation starring the also not Italian actors Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo as Mario and Luigi).
It would be fun to be able to watch this movie with any of the surviving original programmers of Donkey Kong back in the late 1970s. The movie, from Illumination Entertainment’s animation studios, adapts the pixel characters–already looking pretty real in the most recent games–into cutting edge characters that will have viewers ignoring the millions of hours it took to make them have such dimension.
It’s light and fun, and it’s going to be nostalgic for fans of 40 years of Nintendo games. Power up and check out The Mario Bros. Movie, now streaming on Peacock.