The Super Mario Bros. Movie is not The Departed. The Super Mario Bros. Movie is a kids’ movie. It’s bright and beautiful, with a color palette inspired by ice cream and Skittles. Mario (Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day) don’t die. Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy) isn’t running drugs and guns out of the castle. There’s no gore. The scary parts — a dark world inhabited by Bowser (Jack Black) — aren’t actually terrifying. Its jokes and references, like its plot, aren’t hard to follow.
What you see — the bright, beautiful sweetness of it all — is what you get. Just like the video game. And it doesn’t yearn to be much more than that.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie is a movie in theaters made specifically for children. As ScreenCrush’s Matt Singer pointed out, it’s a genre that’s become deceptively slim.
The idea that there’s a ton of kid stuff out there is misleading perhaps because of the very good and noteworthy Disney-Pixar movies that we love. We also, maybe begrudgingly, have the entire Minion cinematic universe. But aside from Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, which Singer spotlights, movies in theaters for little kids right now are few and far between.
There’s also the inundation of superhero movies that seem kid-friendly. Superheroes are supposed to be children’s things. But any parent with little kids will point out the adult themes — like death — that tend to be a big part of all these movies (Shazam! Fury of The Gods features a villain who uses her mind control to make a teacher die by suicide).
“This trip to the movies was supposed to be fun, not a punishment,” Singer writes. “I have such vivid memories of going to the theater with my parents at that age … the popcorn, the candy, the massive screen, the times when they’d have special sneak previews of second movies and you could stay for a double feature … I want to share those kinds of moments with my own kids! Right now, that’s really hard to do.”
The Super Mario Bros. Movie seems to be exactly the kind of movie that Singer is asking for (though Singer himself didn’t particularly enjoy it): a fun 90-minute flick that won’t scare off little kids and doesn’t rock the boat. But the knock on it from adults is that the movie is too simple, so safe, so rote that it might not be a good movie at all. And it all raises the question of what we really want from a Super Mario movie that’s designed for little kids.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie is, of course, about the beloved Nintendo character Mario Mario and his brother Luigi Mario. Yes, the name Mario Mario seems strange, but they’re the “Mario brothers.” Not unlike the Williams and the Hadid sisters or the Marx brothers, the Mario brothers’ surname is Mario (the confusion is perhaps why Mario often goes by first name only).
Mario and Luigi are working-class men. The Brooklyn brothers live at home with their parents and have just started their own plumbing company. It’s unclear how long they’ve been fixing toilets and taming leaks, nor is it established whether the Mario brothers are concerned about launching a small business in this difficult economy.
This is all to say that Mario and Luigi’s interior lives, beyond plumbing and each other, are hardly examined.
Their desires are a mystery. Their hobbies are nonexistent. Their ages? A blur. Their relationships with their parents are textureless. Everything about these men is just generally, amorphously good. The only distinctive thing about Mario and Luigi — aside from Mario wearing red and being shorter, and Luigi wearing green and being taller — is that they are brothers who not only enjoy each other’s company but also love each other immensely. That love is so intense that they’re willing to fight an angry, fire-breathing, imperialist despot and traverse through magic kingdoms and cosmic roadways for one another.
Though their character narratives may seem undercooked, it’s not that different from the video games in which the Mario brothers appear.
“When you think about it, Mario doesn’t really speak much. In the video games, he mostly goes ‘Let’s go!’ or ‘Wahoo!’” Nick DeChicchis, a video game enthusiast and Twitch streamer told me, explaining that Mario and Luigi, for that matter, were primarily designed to be funny or goofy and not characters with intensely detailed narrative lives.
DeChicchis played his first Mario game at the age of four and, as he told me, was extremely “horrible” at the stomp and smash dynamics of Super Mario 64. That’s not totally his fault. Most 4-year-olds do not possess the fine-tuned motor skills needed to survive in this world alone. Hence the need for childproof locks, safety gates, and endless articles for parents about the myriad ways 4-year-olds can fall and hurt themselves.
While four-year-olds are harmfully clumsy in real life, they are less of a danger to themselves playing a Super Mario video game. Sure, while in control of Mario, their lack of hand-eye coordination and slow fingers could launch the pixelated Italian-American plumber off a cliff and to his lava-riddled doom, or into into the gaping maw of a piranha plant, or have him glugging liters of water into his burning lungs at the bottom of a lake, but he always comes back to life.
There’s always one more chance.
“I could not get anywhere in the game. So I would give my dad the controller and I would tell him what to do for me,” DeChicchis told me, explaining that while he and his dad didn’t have a lot in common, they bonded over Mario. “So I feel like a lot of my positive childhood memories with my dad, and like a lot of positive memories that I have stem from that.”
Of course, Mario’s world has gotten bigger and storytelling has gotten more complex as Mario has become a cultural figure: he’s a doctor, racer, tennis player, fighter, composer, and much more. But even in those “professions” and adventures, the basic tenet is that Mario should be simple enough for a child to understand.
The movie hugs the video game’s mission tightly, perhaps to its own critical downfall.
Many of the reviews ding the movie for a lack of risk-taking, stakes, or, I guess, a deep internal, spiritual examination of the lives of the brothers Mario. Why is Mario the strong one? Why is Luigi so afraid? Is this trauma?
Those reviews aren’t wrong. The movie is as predictable as the jump, stomp, smash pattern of the original Mario games. It’s never is in any danger of being understood as a deep allegory for prepubescent depression, existential dread, or a looming fear of our own mortality (Puss in Boots: The Last Wish is about this and it’s so, so good) — the kind of movies for kids that get glowing reviews from adults who write about them.
Can’t wait to take my kid to the Mario movie so I can get 2 hours of uninterrupted sleep.
— mymanjames (@UncommonSense73) April 5, 2023
But like the video games, the movie is a sufficient investment for parents to get out of the house and keep a four-year-old entertained for one and a half hours — one and a half hours that those kids might otherwise be spending toddling around, falling over, and potentially incurring harm. The Super Mario Bros. Movie is a gorgeous, uncomplicated, silly time that children — developing comprehension and motor skills and all — will be able to follow along with and understand. Touching a fire flower lets you throw flame balls, magic mushrooms make Mario big and strong, and all of that, in and of itself, might be inexplicable, but it is extremely fun.
If you ask me which feels more like a poison mushroom, The Super Mario Bros. Movie or the insinuation that I should examine The Super Mario Bros. Movie on the merit of a complex narrative of Mario lore, I’d happily defer to the kids and the parents on what the movie is for.