‘The Super Mario Bros. Movie’ Review: Sheer Animated Fun, and the Rare Video-Game Movie That Gives You a Prankish Video-Game Buzz

“The Super Mario Bros. Movie” gives you a wholesome prankish druggy chameleonic video-game buzz; it’s also a nice, sweet confection for 6-year-olds. Historically, the proverbial problem with live-action movies based on video games — and “Super Mario Bros.,” a leaden dud released 30 years ago, had the dishonor of being the very first one — is that they jam-pack the screen with tropes and fights and characters and landscapes right out of the game, but when it comes to molding all that gimcrackery into, you know, a story, they lose the electronic pulse that made the game addictive. Digital animation is, and always should have been, the true cousin of video games (which are essentially computer fantasies that you control). And “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” takes full advantage of the sculptural liquid zap of the computer-animation medium. Yet it also has a fairy-tale story that’s good enough to get you onto its wavelength.

When Mario, the mustached, overalls-wearing Italian plumber of Nintendo fame (voiced by Chris Pratt as an eager Brooklyn everyman), swirls down a New York sewer and into the Mushroom Kingdom, where he learns to leap from one now-you-see-it floating airborne block to the next, or faces off against the preening, super-strong but not really all that mighty Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen) on a network of red girders in a gladiatorial arena that’s hanging 2,000 feet in the air, or zips along a superhighway of pure rainbow light in a car chase that’s aggressive enough to look like something out of “Mad Max: Candy-Land Road,” the movie doesn’t so much duplicate the logistics of a Mario game as conjure the spirit of the game. We’ve enmeshed in every choice, every movement. The action isn’t vacuous or ponderous — it makes speed and light seem concretely alive.

Mario and his timid brother, Luigi (Charlie Day), are devoted to each other, and they’re out to start their own plumbing business (complete with a TV commercial in which they speak in fake kitsch Italian accents). But then they delve into the sewer to fix a water-main break and get sucked down into an alternate universe. Mario lands in the Mushroom Kingdom, where the big red ‘shrooms with white polka dots suggest a Wonderland designed for the Smurfs. Luigi gets dumped into the Dark Lands, a Tim Burton nightworld of gnarled trees and creepy chattering skeletons.

Mario just wants to rescue his brother, but then he meets Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy), who rules over the Mushroom Kingdom’s denizens, who have spherical mushroom heads and the faces of airbrushed babies; they’re led by Toad (Keegan-Michael Key), a cuddlebug with attitude. Mario then teams up with Princess Peach to save her kingdom from Bowser, a fire-breathing beastie who commands a vast army of Koopas, who are turtles. Bowser is a turtle too, if a rather monstrous one — he’s like a fusion of Lionel Barrymore, the Wayland Flowers puppet Madame, and, a T. Rex plushie made for toddlers.

Jack Black, who voices this horny demon, gives a stupendous performance. Bowser is in love with Princess Peach, even as he’s planning to attack her empire, and Black, conjuring something very different from his usual hipster-stoner vibe, makes Bowser a domineering but deeply insecure romantic, like the Phantom of Opera as a neurotic troglodyte. Having a villain who’s a vulnerable ogre you’re at once appalled, amused, and fascinated by makes this a very different sort of kinetic kiddie fantasia. When Bowser is onscreen with his flaming red eyebrows and S&M arm bands, his gap-toothed reptile leer, his Meat Loaf-meets-Axl Rose soft-rock odes to Peach, and his nerd’s megalomania, the audience is in heaven.

There’s a way that mainstream animation, not to mention my own taste in it, has been evolving. So much of it has become rote, with an empty fractious dazzle that doesn’t ultimately sustain interest. And the Pixar brand, much as it saddens me to say it, has in recent years lost some of its humanistic luster. The animated movies I’ve been most drawn to have been off the Pixar grid — movies like “Trolls” and “Ralph Breaks the Internet,” which merge a kind of kinetic virtuosity with an emotional flair that sneaks up on you. I’d put “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” in that camp. It’s going to be a huge, huge hit, but not just because of its beloved gamer pedigree. (That didn’t help “Super Mario Bros.” in 1993.) It’s because the movie, as directed by Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic (from a script by Matthew Fogel), is a serious blast, with a spark of enchantment — that je ne sais quoi fusion of speed and trickery, magic and sophistication, and sheer play that…well, you feel it when you see it.

The key thing “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” has that too many animated films don’t — I would say, without overstating it, that it links the film to the spirit of “Yellow Submarine” — is a rollicking aesthetic of transmutation. We know that Mario can balance on a girder to face off against Donkey Kong, even as Donkey Kong’s dad, Cranky Kong (voiced by Fred Armisen with the kind of extreme New York accent that somehow feels right at home in the Jungle Kingdom), cheers for Mario’s demise. But when Mario wins the duel by transforming himself into a cat, all because he is now wearing a furry cat costume, that’s pure video-game surrealism. I change identity by tapping a Power-up box, therefore I am. The movie also strikes a note of agreeably transgressive comedy when Cranky Kong and his crew, who’ve been placed in hanging cages, have to the endure the presence of a glowing star who voices Debbie Downer existential despair in the ickiest of baby voices.

There have been approximately 50 movies based on video games, and most of them are terrible. I’ve had limited patience even for the ones that “work,” like the coolly depersonalized “Resident Evil” series or that first “Lara Croft” film. It’s not that I’m hostile to video games; it’s that the game and film mediums are so different. Then again, not all video games are the same — the funky nihilist hellscapes of Grand Theft Auto couldn’t be further removed from the interactive innocence of the Mario franchise. Mario presides over a digital playground that lifts the spirit to a place of split-second wonder, and “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” stays true to that. Its ingenuity is infectious. You don’t have to be a Mario fan to respond to it, but the film is going to remind the millions who are why they call it a joystick.

Read More About:

Source: Read Full Article