Note: Possible spoilers ahead for The Super Mario Bros. Movie. You’ve been warned. Let’s-a go!
I’m a Nintendo fan. And while The Legend of Zelda and Xenoblade Chronicles are my go-to Nintendo franchises, I’ve been looking forward to The Super Mario Bros. Movie ever since it was announced. I went into the film with expectations of mediocrity that were pleasantly exceeded. It’s certainly not the movie for everyone, but it’s an excellent family film or an enjoyable experience for long-time Mario fans like yours truly. Illumination certainly succeeded in transforming the world of Mario onto the big screen.
Since I personally enjoyed the movie a lot, I was a little surprised at the low Rotten Tomatoes score from critics. Granted, there’s nothing surprising about fans loving a franchise film and critics hating it. And, to be fair, The Super Mario Bros. Movie is a simple story with a few imperfect plot moments (more on this in a moment). But for the critical score to be as low as it is? I was curious to know what fireballs were being hurled at the movie and started skimming through the critiques. In the process, I came across more than a few negative reviews that I strongly disagree with and wanted to challenge from the perspective of a writer.
First, I noticed a lot of critics commenting that the plot was weak. As I said before, the plot was simplistic and convenient in places. A few scenes could’ve been better written to make characters coming together feel less forced. I will give the critics that. It’s easy to forgive some of the movie’s more convenient moments when you’re familiar with the Mario games. However, I disagree with the idea that a simple, predictable plot makes a bad movie. Simple stories often have some of the best, clearest character arcs, a feat that The Super Mario Bros. Movie also accomplishes. Plus, tropes are popular for a reason, which brings me to another criticism that annoyed me even more.
Some critics complained that The Super Mario Bros. Movie wasn’t “groundbreaking” enough; it didn’t innovate in animation. My (slightly frustrated) questions for these critics are simply this: does it matter? Why does every new piece of cinema have to do something totally out of the box? Newness doesn’t always equate to better. As I said, tried and true tropes linger for a reason, that reason being that they work. Now, that statement shouldn’t be an excuse for relying on clichés, but I think there’s something to be said about sticking with the classic story structures and tropes. It’s satisfying to the audience because it’s familiar. It keeps stories entertaining, too, while the spectacle of something completely different eventually wears off.
And the idea that The Super Mario Bros. Movie needed to be “groundbreaking” in some way completely misses the point of the movie, in my opinion. The film is meant to capitalize on a successful franchise. It needs to be recognizable. Sure, there’s something to be said about profiting off of nostalgia, but in my opinion, as long as it’s done well, I’m fine with a little nostalgia baiting. The Super Mario Bros. Movie is a good example of how to do it well, which I can’t say about all the Disney reboots. As a final word on this criticism, I would also make the case that “innovation” in the case of the Super Mario Bros. franchise starts by giving fans a movie we can actually be proud of. (I mean, what did the critics want when they said the movie wasn’t “groundbreaking”? Surely not a remake of the 1993 monstrosity…)
Moving to a final critique, and the one I disagree with most of all, a few critics commented that the characters don’t change or grow over the course of the film. To that, I laugh in disbelief and shock. They don’t change? With all due respect, what film were they watching? I’ll grant that the character growth was subtle. But it was still present. Mario grows in confidence and Luigi grows in courage. Both main characters have a clear, consistent, meaningful arc.
Speaking of characters, this is a good segue to talk about other positive aspects of The Super Mario Bros. Movie that I appreciated. The characters as a whole were fantastically done. They had enough familiarity to connect them to the admittedly not-as-well-developed video game versions, but added just enough depth and personality to make them fit with the silver screen. And the voice acting was spot on. (Yes, even Chris Pratt. Though maybe not Seth Rogen…) That being said, I will admit that Princess Peach is the only character I’m unsure of. While her portrayal as a brave, capable princess is consistent with her appearances across the Mario series, she almost seemed too perfect, like the stereotypical Mary Sue character trope that is certainly a trope to avoid. After all, Peach’s only real weakness was her own nobility, i.e. surrendering herself to save her people. An admirable quality, to be sure, but all of the other leads had some flaw that made them relatable. Peach did not.
Okay, okay, back to the praises. The music was absolutely brilliant. Brian Tyler did an epic job taking Koji Kondo’s original themes and transforming them into an incredible movie score, which I’m listening to on constant repeat. The musical motifs also added extra Easter eggs that added to my delight of the film. Also, “Peaches” is still stuck in my head. Thanks, Jack Black.
On the topic of Easter eggs, the movie’s use of references and world-building from the games was perfectly executed. There’s still plenty of room for more exploration of abilities and concepts from the franchise, yet the movie delivered just the right amount of Mario lore. Even Lumalee, everyone’s new favorite nihilistic Luma, felt like a nod to some of the creepier, off-color humor hidden in games like Paper Mario and the Mario & Luigi series, which include more dialogue than the typical Mario game. It did not strike me as fan-service at all; it was a celebration of the series’ legacy.
At risk of being redundant, I want to close this movie review with some of the thoughts I’m taking away from the film as a writer. First, as established earlier, a simple story structure is okay. In fact, it might be just right for the story you’re trying to tell. You can innovate in other ways that don’t require overly-elaborate set-ups or showy scenes. Simplify your plot and focus on crafting a unique world and compelling characters. Maybe snobbish critics won’t find it the greatest thing ever, but your readers will likely thank you and appreciate it. With that, don’t shy away from more subtle character growth. Beyond The Super Mario Bros. Movie, Harry Potter comes to mind as another good example of this. Harry, Hermione, and Ron don’t have particularly obvious arcs; their growth is far more subtle. Finally, know your audience. The Super Mario Bros. Movie works so well because it appeals to its fans. Make sure as you build your own readership base that you’re able to keep meeting your own audience’s expectations.
I hope we get more Mario movies, provided they live up to the standard set by this first film. (Also, Zelda movie? Please?) All in all, The Super Mario Bros. Movie is a great film, one that encourages a sense of wonder in its watchers and honors Mario’s many, many fans.