Somewhere around 1996 or 1997, in pre-school, a teacher told me that there was a Super Mario Bros. movie from “a long time ago” that wasn’t like the games at all. I must’ve asked her why they hadn’t made a movie out of a character as compelling and charismatic as Mario, Luigi, Yoshi, Bowser, and Princess Peach. “Well, it wasn’t a very good movie. They made them into real plumbers.” It’s not animated?! “No—really ugly, too. I never saw it.” She had no smartphone to pull out and show us a picture of Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo as Mario and Luigi, and if Washington Market Preschool even had a computer, their dial-up wouldn’t do for streaming videos on a website that wouldn’t exist for another decade.
I did go to our neighborhood video store, World of Video on Greenwich Ave., and look for a tape of the 1993 film directed by Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel. There’s no way they had it, because I would’ve rented it, and though I still haven’t seen Super Mario Bros., I remember eventually finding an image from the film—the poster, the box art, something—that confirmed everything my teacher told me: this was an abomination, a Mario I wanted no part of. My first days with a Nintendo 64 and playing Super Mario 64 rank among the most ecstatic hours of my life. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and later Metal Gear Solid, later emerged as video games that could compete with many films, even books—but Super Mario 64 was simply the greatest video game ever made, and remains so. It isn’t trying to be a movie, or a book, or a song, or a painting, or anything but an awe-inspiring game.
So I never saw Bob Hoskins as Mario. There were never movies based on Zelda or Metal Gear Solid, and it wasn’t until Spider-Man in 2002 that a favorite from another medium made it onto the big screen in a big way. Even though I vowed to beat my record for movie seen most in theaters—Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace, nine times in 1999—I just couldn’t manage the enthusiasm for Raimi’s Spider-Man. And by 2002, I had more going on than in 1999, as ridiculous as that sounds; after the fifth or sixth time—maybe even fourth?—I knew I was forcing myself. Spider-Man was great, but I knew from the first viewing that it wasn’t fully satisfying, a morsel and the beginning to an inevitable series. Until The Batman last year, I never saw a super-hero movie that felt as satisfying as reading a perfect bound compilation of 12 or 20 issues. And I never even liked Batman very much!
Now, at the age of 30, there’s a real Mario movie to see. Produced by Illumination, the same animation studio responsible for the surprisingly good Minions: The Rise of Gru, this is the movie I would’ve watched 100 times as a kid. All of the casting choices criticized whenever the movie was announced—Chris Pratt, Charlie Day, Jack Black, Anya-Taylor Joy, Seth Rogen—never stick out (except Rogen as Donkey Kong), and from the first second I was completely in it. It’s hard to overstate the dopamine rush of hearing so many beautiful eight-bit sound effects and beautifully rendered rainbow colored characters from your early childhood all stuffed into an enormously satisfying 92-minute feature film. Everything about The Super Mario Bros. movie is perfect and true to the games and their tone. The “panic attack” some complained about, including me, was just some cynical marketing, because there’s nothing shoe-horned in here, a film for everyone that doesn’t pander or create unrealistic morality tests for characters.
There’s a Kill Bill reference in the first minute (“Battle Without Honor or Humanity” roars as Bowser faces down an ice kingdom), just like The Rise of Gru, whose opening title sequence was designed around a remix of “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down).” But even a Tarantino reference would’ve made sense in 1996 or 1997, when Super Mario 64 came out. This is a brilliant movie, one without bathroom humor (unlike the tepid Sonic the Hedgehog), and one that will span generations. You’ve probably already seen it, and if not, don’t worry: it’ll be in theaters the rest of the year.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie is everything I wanted from a Super Mario Bros. movie as a kid, and it was a blast revisiting that world for an hour and a half a couple of weeks ago on a Saturday evening. This one is keeping theaters afloat, and it’s far from a sign of the end times.
—Follow Nicky Smith on Twitter: @nickyotissmith