I think it is safe to agree that animated movies made with children in mind have very specific functions to perform and therefore usually operate within the framework of constraints set by those functions. If they are to honestly entertain children, they must be narratively engineered with simplicity as a number one priority and – usually, but not always – they must at least offer a possibility to extend beyond the film itself. After all, any kid would love to re-imagine the events they witnessed in the film on their own time, with toys. Therefore, consumerist as it may come across, kids’ cartoons are expected to function on a mercantile level and push toys or games towards children they are aiming to entertain. That’s all they ever need to do. Anything else is just an added feature.
Hence, it is hard to expect anything sophisticated or inspired out of a film titled The Super Mario Bros. Movie, which I believe is key to understand. It’s not Super Mario Bros. It’s not Super Mario Bros. – The Movie. It’s The Super Mario Bros. Movie, as though to anticipate its appearance in a sentence like this: ‘My dad took me to the cinema yesterday to watch The Super Mario Bros. Movie’, which logically translates to ‘I just saw the movie about that game we play together every day’. I think this is key to understanding who this movie is for, why it is made the way it is and why it is perfectly OK for it to be what it is.
And what it is, is a simple story about the now iconic duo of plumbers, Mario and Luigi (voiced by Chris Pratt and Charlie Day), who end up sucked into a magical universe where they must help Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy) defeat an evil baddie Bowser (Jack Black) from taking over her kingdom. To do that they will have to enlist help of other familiar characters, such as Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen) and Toad (Keegan-Michael Key). That’s it. This is the story – a pared down version of the traditional hero’s journey set in a universe plucked from the well-loved series of Nintendo games and festooned with plot elements specifically engineered to highlight ancillary games to the main Super Mario series, such as Mario Kart, Donkey Kong and others.
Being completely honest, The Super Mario Bros. Movie, such as it is, is a perfect entertainment vehicle designed to endear younger viewers and treat them as primary recipients of what the movie has to offer. This movie does not attempt to be edgy at all, nor does it even try to slip an innuendo into the proceedings, to ensure that the adult in the audience doesn’t feel abandoned. After all, I can go and watch John Wick: Chapter 4 later in the day, a movie I wouldn’t show to my nine-year-old for several reasons, so it’s perfectly fine if a child can go and watch a movie that is not so much family-friendly, but rather family-oriented. It’s not sophisticated, complex, edgy or deep in any meaningful way. The story wears its intentions on its sleeve, the humour is perfectly easy to grasp and for the most part visually-aided and the take-home messaging about the importance of believing in yourself, finding your inner strength, helping others and working together are easy to extract without excessive inference.
Put simply, it’s a perfect movie to take your whole family to, just as the Super Mario games are perfect entertainment for the entire family to enjoy; which I don’t think is an accident at all. In fact, it seems it was either mandated by Nintendo – who hold the rights to the characters and their likenesses – to ensure that the spirit of the games would be preserved while turning them into a movie, or that the filmmakers understood the assignment and prioritized this spirit knowing full well it is the strongest asset of these properties. That’s where the magic of these games is – they are simple, untarnished with thematic ambiguity and perfectly accessible to people of all ages. You just don’t grow out of playing Mario Kart, Donkey Kong or any other title in this universe. And the filmmakers (Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic) must have known from personal experience because they captured this notion with aptitude.
Granted, anyone seeking narrative sophistication or some kind of emotional engagement that goes beyond the colourful simplicity of a story about princesses, dragons and scrawny little plumbers, will likely emerge disappointed. And that’s fine. Because they ought to know better than to apply the same yardstick they would happily deploy when assessing critical worth of other recent animated works, like Luca, or Encanto, which are less family-oriented and more family-friendly, or even movies like Soul which are even less family-friendly and simply function as movies for adults that kids can get something out of.
This wouldn’t fly at all with the longstanding Nintendo ethos, which prioritizes all-inclusive entertainment above all else. This movie is a functional product designed to become a nostalgia touchstone for young minds taken to see it together with their parents and a springboard to either germinate or consolidate their attachment to these extremely playable and enjoyable video games. And I am fine with that because if there are games I can safely leave in the hands of a young kid without worrying the content may be inappropriate or too violent for them, they are going to have Mario, Luigi, Peach and Donkey Kong on the cover. So, as a parent, I expect the same from the movie of the same name.
All in all, The Super Mario Bros. Movie is perfect for what it ever needed to be – a straightforward piece of digestible entertainment aimed at younger audiences and designed to be enjoyed by the whole family. Devoid of winks and nudges to popular culture or saucy innuendos to be flown right over the children’s heads, this movie is nothing more than an incarnation of a tried-and-true narrative formula that also happens to invigorate a passion for completely harmless video platformers and racing video games. And seeking anything more in this movie is quite simply a mistake. In fact, it is just as erroneous as looking for thematic depth of poetry in the verses of Twinkle-Twinkle Little Star or any other nursery rhyme for that matter. It’s a movie made for kids. And more importantly, it’s a movie kids will enjoy, because it’s colorful, simple, action-packed and immensely watchable.