Fools, how long will you love being ignorant? How long will you make fun of wisdom? How long will you hate knowledge?
Ed Desciak—blinded by his 8-bit nostalgia—must also hate this verse. We walked into the movie theater with beaming smiles and hope in our hearts. I share his longtime fondness for Nintendo and Mario, and even claim thrice as many stars in Mario Odyssey. (Take that, Ed.) I embraced this film with love but found no soul to meet mine.
This film is made primarily for kids. I see no issue in that. The classic and modern Mario games are also made for kids, and yet command a universal audience. The issue is who the movie is by. Frankly, I would prefer this film to have been made by a class of four-year-olds, than the lauded “Illumination.” Nintendo has built a storied reputation as a company of quality and substance, carefully curating their releases and developing an incomparable library of video game IPs.
Unfortunately, their partnership with Illumination Studios, the perfect foil to Nintendo’s sincerity, is an offensive misstep. Illumination Studios was founded in 2007 and burst onto the animation scene with the smash hit Despicable Me. After the mixed reception of their second film Hop—a live action-CGI hybrid—Illumination returned to the safe style of Despicable Me. They perfected a formula of surface-level plots and characters depicted through clean, boring animation, set to pop hits. Illumination is held in high regard only by those who worship the portrait of Ben Franklin as the end of art. In The Lorax, they exploited Dr. Seuss’s classic environmental advocate to sell cars. Now, they take on the Mario Bros.
I wish I found a heart at the core of The Super Mario Bros. Movie, but I sadly did not. I agree with Mr. Desciak: the immensely talented voice-acting team is the film’s highlight. Unfortunately, these actors seem trapped inside a movie and studio that doesn’t share their enthusiasm. Illumination does not seem to care for the rich world they have the privilege of putting on the screen. The film can throw out a Rainbow Road, Donkey Kong level, and Super Star as a MacGuffin, but these choices always feel like a game of corporate Mad Libs. The film gives us the easy Easter eggs and callbacks, while at key moments discarding the series’s legendary music in favor of… “Take on Me” and “Holding Out for a Hero?” While the film’s official score was supposedly crafted with deference to the original themes, it largely dresses up only the most subtle of motifs in the most generic action-adventure music. For a real fan, it’s these little things that count. Even the film’s unexpected opening, which positions Mario in New York City before he lands in the Mushroom Kingdom, seems more like an excuse to reuse imagery from Illumination’s Secret Life of Pets series. Despite the immensely diverse visual styles of Mario games, this film looks no different from the bland animation that characterizes the studio’s other films.
Ed, I appeal to you to see the light. I wish that nostalgia heightened this film, but instead it is used to blind us fans to the soullessness of the movie. You would nary accept this dribble were it a game; you would scorn it as a blot on the legacy of classics we have so deeply cherished. But this film was supposed to be so much more, and falls flat as so much less. What will we settle for? Shall we submit our values to the slither of the market? No. Mario stands for so much more. Ed, open your eyes and heart—allow yourself to hope—and there is no level we cannot beat.