A Defense of The Super Mario Bros. Movie

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“When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I put aside childish things.”

– 1 Corinthians 13:11

I hate this verse. While I appreciate St. Paul’s attempt to describe how human efforts to understand God are nothing in the face of the actuality of God’s love, I wholeheartedly disagree that we should let go of the childlike glee of our youth. Wordsworth is better than scripture in this instance, with his exhortation that “the child is the father of the man,” a line that expresses a higher truth—that children have much to teach us. It seems wrong that Paul would associate hyper-rationalist explanations of the world with children when over-analyzing is a trait not of the young but of the old, allegedly “mature” persons (and this introduction). There is beauty in the simplicity of a child’s imagination, in their naivetë, in their enthusiasm for everything.

I don’t know who needs to be reminded of this fact more than the decrepit individuals whose reviews are compiled for the Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer scores. The latest offense in their crusade against happiness is a rotten score of 57 percent for The Super Mario Bros. Movie. Now, I may be biased. I grew up on Nintendo games, sinking days of my life into every Mario title I could get my hands on. Nintendo could have probably outsourced the movie to an introductory stop-motion class of eight-year-olds instead of to the lauded animation studio Illumination, and I probably still would have loved the film. But God help anyone who could not find happiness in this movie. 

The vibrant animation, endless nostalgia, stellar voice acting, and lovable characters of The Super Mario Bros. Movie are a triumph. Yes, it is a kids’ movie. But any critic judging this film against the intellectual standard of Casablanca or Citizen Kane needs to be banned from the public discourse. There are bad children’s movies, sure, but this is not one of them.

Perhaps these critics are holding onto some false sense of impartiality, attempting to judge the film apart from the nostalgia and Easter eggs that longtime Nintendo fans will feel and find. But this, too, is a fool’s errand. One should not—and moreover, cannot—separate this film from the almost 40-year-old franchise that it celebrates. And the movie is just that: a celebration of an IP that millions of people grew up on, presented in a new format (not including the 1993 miscarriage that was the first Super Mario Bros. movie). The movie expertly weaves in various references to Mario lore, from a brief Baby Mario appearance to a Donkey Kong-inspired arena and Rainbow Road feature. The movie accomplishes exactly what fans hoped for through abundant callbacks to beloved games. The Super Mario Bros. Movie is a non-stop nostalgia trip through the Mushroom Kingdom.

In response to the common critique that the characters lack depth, just look to Mario and Luigi’s family dinner table. The decision to portray Mario as an Italian-American plumber from Brooklyn—struggling between the expectations of his father, his loyalty to his somewhat incompetent younger brother, and his desire to set out on his own —is ripped right from the script of Saturday Night Fever, or any other ’70s coming-of-age movie.

A good children’s movie includes adult references that older viewers can enjoy without disrupting the flow of the film. The slice-of-life homage to the tradition of ’70s New York cinema brilliantly sets up a film that spends most of its time on an adventure through fantastical worlds. It provides enough grounding for Mario and Luigi’s relationship—the driving force of the film—to be motivating. In evoking the familiar movie trope of the New York Italian family, the movie does not need to spend an inordinate amount of time telling us what makes the characters tick. If the critics raging about the lack of depth in the characters were the cinephiles they feign to be, then they too would recognize and appreciate this nod.

The film’s jokes hit. The nihilistic Luma, an adorable star creature from the game Super Mario Galaxy, breaks from the light and happy tone of the rest of the movie by telling the audience how nasty, brutish, and short life is while wishing for the sweet release of death. Despite being completely out of place, the character functions perfectly on two levels: satisfying the more random humor of children while simultaneously appealing to the existential dread of the millennial. The comic relief from Bowser, voiced by Jack Black, singing love songs about Peach is another high note. 

Is the movie relatively simple? Yes, but it is smart in its simplicity. TheSuper Bros. Movie had me smiling ear to ear, transporting me back to the days of playing Super Mario Bros. 3 on my dad’s old NES for the first time. The movie is a masterclass in video game adaptations, and its box-office success sets the stage for more of Nintendo’s beloved IPs to be translated onto the silver screen.

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