The Super Mario Bros. Movie: A Light in the Darkness

I’ll make no bones about it. The Super Mario Bros. Movie was easily the most anticipated movie of the year, if not the last decade. Even the reveal of the voice cast over a year ago produced a nearly unprecedented amount of buzz on social media. It’s not hard to see why: this film has one of the most stacked voice casts of any animated film I’ve ever seen, with big names who perfectly fit the iconic Mario characters they play. The lead, Mario Mario, is voiced by mega-star Chris Pratt, who like the plumber himself is a sex icon who has worked closely with dinosaurs. His sidekick Luigi is voiced by Charlie Day, famous for portraying another paint-huffer in Charlie Kelly from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Or how about The Queen’s Gambit lead Anya Taylor-Joy as Princess Peach? Perfection. It’s easy to see why fans were so intrigued when these roles were announced.

And then there’s the studio producing the film. In collaboration with Nintendo, The Super Mario Bros. Movie is being produced by Illumination, in my opinion the finest animation studio currently active. Like Kendrick Lamar, their record is essentially spotless. With their latest endeavors including the tear-jerking Minions: The Rise of Gru, the incredible Sing 2, and the totally necessary The Secret Life of Pets 2, it’s no surprise that this brought a great deal of eyes to the project.

But no amount of hype or résumé answers the question you’re likely asking: how is the movie? In a word, genius. In a few more words, the film more than lives up to the lofty expectations it garnered. Continuing the Kendrick comparison, I would go so far as to say it is Illumination’s To Pimp a Butterfly. Not in terms of its racial politics—in fact, I would argue that the film’s portrayal of Italians is easily its weakest aspect—but in its spectacular vision and originality. It is an artistic triumph, and will hopefully prove the final nail in the coffin of (admittedly justified) preconceptions against video game films.

The story is the main strength of the film. The Mario video games are not well known for their plots, but the franchise is old, large and diverse enough that it contains numerous narrative gems in its catalog. It is clear that The Super Mario Bros. Movie has turned to a handful of these for inspiration, including the cult classic Hotel Mario and the criminally underrated Super Mario Bros. film from 1993. The influence of the latter is particularly evident in the newer film’s cyberpunk dystopian setting.

In this film, the Mario brothers are humble plumbers in a futuristic dictatorship that is ruled with an iron fist by the evil Bowser. After a chance encounter with the radical leftist agitator Donkey Kong (“the Destroyer’’), the two find themselves drawn into the underground rebellion, exploring their society and identities in a surrealist phantasmagoria. Not many films can boast both gladiatorial combat and a psilocybin-inspired car race. Whereas the 1993 film often bordered on camp, the new one is a sardonic, masterful genre deconstruction steeped in postmodernism. Its almost Freudian takes on Luigi’s journey from boy to man and Mario’s apotheosis from man to sexual archetype were stunning, and its twists (which I won’t spoil) blew me away – no pun intended. I am legitimately sad that I missed even a minute of this film while going to the bathroom.

The Super Mario Bros. Movie should also be celebrated for its representation of LBGTQ characters, which is refreshingly novel for an Illumination film. Contrary to what you might expect, they were not satisfied with just including Birdo for a short gag. The mainstream media will likely focus on the lesbian relationship that blossoms between the historically helpless “Princesses’’ Peach and Daisy (befitting this film’s progressive sentiments, these characters have been changed from actual monarchs to mafia bosses). But attention should also be given to the strong erotic undertones that were painted between Luigi and Bowser. While not an explicit relationship like Peasy, Bow-igi felt raw and visceral from the moment Bowser first caressed Luigi’s cheek. The depth of visual references to common yaoi tropes was a welcome surprise.

Bow-igi Art credit: @marsoid on Tumblr

I want to end on one final note: this movie succeeds as a love letter to the fans. A good film is a good film, of course, and this film can be enjoyed by anyone. But when it comes to an adaptation, especially an adaptation of something as widespread and beloved as Mario, it’s gratifying to see a true passion for the source material shine through. As I mentioned above, the story itself is heavily inspired by some of the great Mario stories that have come before; I’m sure any fan of these stories will be happy to see them revived on the big screen. But there are little touches too: cameos of characters both beloved and obscure, subtle visual flairs calling back to past games, and references to well-known memes and in-jokes from the fan community. The one that will likely receive the most buzz was the short appearance of Bowsette, a popular fan character. (Another win for the trans community!)

In a time when gamers are more oppressed than ever, this film stands as a light in the darkness, an inspiring creation that is hopefully the vanguard of many more to come. I would encourage anyone who loves good stories to watch it. You won’t be disappointed.