Super Mario Bros film an endearing cash grab


(PG) 92 minutes, cinemas

Going by the sales figures, there are few characters, not even Harry Potter or Spider-Man, who can match the global appeal of Mario, the mustachioed Italian-American plumber who has starred in countless Nintendo video games since the 1980s, sometimes alongside his eternally overshadowed brother Luigi.

Mario (voiced by Chris Pratt) and Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy) in The Super Mario Bros. Movie.

If you’ve never played any of these games, Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic’s animated The Super Mario Bros. Movie may seem utterly bizarre. For everybody else, it’s the ultimate in comforting familiarity. Mario (voiced by Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day) are sucked into an inter-dimensional pipe that transports them from their Brooklyn neighbourhood to the magical Mushroom Kingdom, ruled by the gracious Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy).

When Luigi is taken prisoner by the monstrous King Bowser (Jack Black), Mario sets out to save his brother, leaping between floating platforms, battling Bowser’s turtle minions and gobbling mushrooms to increase his strength.

There are a handful of differences between this interpretation of the material and earlier takes. Bowser is now into hair metal, the princess is a Strong Female Character (TM) rather than a damsel in distress, and the brothers no longer speak in Chico Marx accents (“Itsa me, Mario!”) as they did in the games.

That last choice, especially, may be for the best, although it’s anyone’s guess what cultural authenticity could mean in the context of this US-Japan co-production, made by a pair of US directors with Mario’s Japanese creator Shigeru Miyamoto on board as a producer, and much of the animation done in France.

Indeed, one thing brought home here is how freely Miyamoto borrowed all along from US popular culture. Mario’s relation to mushrooms is a lot like Popeye’s to spinach (reportedly Nintendo tried to buy the Popeye rights). Princess Peach and her Mushroom People recall Glinda and the Munchkins. And we don’t have to wonder who the menacing yet dopey gorilla Donkey Kong (voiced by Seth Rogen) was originally named for.

In this sense, The Super Mario Bros. Movie brings things full circle, as a fond if occasionally ironic tribute from the games’ Western fans. Given my own unfamiliarity with anything Nintendo has done since the 1990s, I have no doubt many of the in-jokes whizzed past me, but I did appreciate the wit and care put into the designs, especially the re-creation of old-school 2D platform gameplay in a relatively three-dimensional space.

None of this is to imply that originality is a priority here, or that the film needed to exist for any reason except a commercial one. But as cash-grabs go it’s endearing, and for viewers young enough to be coming to it all for the first time, it may serve as a window on any number of possible or impossible worlds.

The Super Mario Bros. Movie is released in cinemas from April 6.

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