Review MARIO BROS, or, Plumber Saves Brooklyn

I took my children to see the computer-animated SUPER MARIO BROS. MOVIE this week, and a fine time was had by all. In sum, there were no liberal sucker punches, no subversive message, little or no wokeness.

The Princess was an all-American girl, an adventuring, platform-jumping tomboy, forthright and folksy. She was perfectly sweet but as unalike a princess as possible, so the film was not perfect.

The plot could have been tweaked and tightened up in a place or two — but these are minor complaints against an overall enjoyable and professional product, with a well-chosen soundtrack, expertly voice-acted, charming, funny, and, at times, moving.

It takes a bit of auctorial agility to turn a video game franchise into a feature-length film, but it can be done.

The 1993 live-action version of the same title starring Bob Hoskins is legendary as one of biggest face-first belly-flops of filmdom, and an example of what not to do.

This film could easily serve as an example of what to do: pay homage to the source material, perhaps with sly references or visual gags, capture the look of the original, and built a plot around whatever basic conflict forms the game background.

The plot can be minimal: merely an excuse of spectacle and action to move the plot from scene to scene and fight-scene to fight-scene. A film based on a video game should emphasize kinetic action, thrills and spills, scenery and sets capturing the spirit of the game, and have enough of a character arc for the hero and heroine to come to a satisfying conclusion.  Such a film does not have to be complicated, and it does not have to be high art, it merely has to satisfy the kids, and make the parents feel the ticket money was not wasted. SUPER MARIO BROS does all these things.

The plot concerns the menace of Bowser, fire-breathing monster and musical song stylist, who, having conquered the penguin kingdom, turns his tyrannical eyes toward the mushroom kingdom, ruled by Princess Peach.

Meanwhile, in the Earth-realm, two Italian brothers who have recently opened their own plumbing business, dream of saving Brooklyn from leaks and overflows. Their ex-boss, their family, and the mean dog they shoved into the shower have grave doubts about the brothers’ eventual success. They have thick Italian accents only for the duration of the television commercial, on which they spent their last dime. Their first job ends in comical disaster. Prospects look dim. But then Brooklyn is flooded by a broken street main, and the brothers race to the aid the borough, monkey-wrenches at the ready.

They find themselves sucked into a polychromatic interdimensional plumbing pipe, and promise each other that, as long as they are together, they are invincible. Whereupon they are separated, one falling into the dark and dismal flame-turtle kingdom and the other into the candy-colored mushroom kingdom. Mario, the elder, spends the remainder of the film trying to rescue his brother Luigi, the younger.

Which brings me to the only serious drawback in the film: the damsel in distress does not suffer much distress, meaning the hero has not much to do. Except when she does, and he has.

The conceit of the plot is simple and serious enough, and harkens from the game franchise, namely, that the villain kidnaps the beautiful princess in order to force her into marriage. It is the prime motive of every moustache-twirling blackguard who ever bound a maiden pure to the railroad tracks.

However, in this film, when the fire-breathing villain has arrived in his flying volcano-fortress with his horde, her kingdom at his mercy, and has her surrounded and alone, the machismo princess in her Emma Peal motorcycle leathers flourishes a poleaxe to defy his menace — as if she were a manly soldier bold more willing to die in a blaze of glory than bow the knee.

Then, precisely one second later, the villain threatens one and only one of her people, whereupon she folds like a cheap tv-dinner tray in the most weak-sister fashion imaginable. This makes her prior panache look like emptyheaded foolishness: she is willing to fight a war, but not to sustain a single casualty?

Even if her kingdom is one of comedy-relief mushroom smurfs, she displays nothing of the nobility a fairytale noblewoman should have, neither the courage of a man nor the sweetness of a maiden. The film cannot decide whether to put her in the hero’s role or the damsel’s, and so she falls awkwardly short of both.

Meanwhile, Luigi passively makes no attempt to escape the cage he is held in, despite the absence of any guards, despite that his character arc, allegedly, is his overcoming a shy cowardice due to the example of his brave older brother.

On the other hand, the characterization and character arcs of the hero and villain, Mario and Bowser, not to mention the side-characters of Donkey Kong and his sullen royal father, while simple, are spot-on, and remain true to the rules of fairytales as well as of fighting games.

Bowser is a properly sadistic dark overlord, whose motive for marrying the princess turns out to be sincere puppy-love, complete with heartfelt musical accompaniment.

For this part, Mario’s unwillingness to quit when he is losing is a portrayed with an honest sincerity utterly unexpected in so lighthearted a story — we see him battered, with bruises on his face, slumped in defeat on the floor of a smashed-up store in Brooklyn at one point, when a cracked television screen plays a repeat of his boastful television commercial. And then a light of determination comes into his eyes.

Nothing of the setting is explained, nor, since this is not actually a science fiction story, need it be. That fact that there are power up boxes hovering in the air to give fighters and platform-leapers temporary superpowers, sufficiently to allow a plumber to overcome an ape, needs no explanation.

However, the fact that the McGuffin, a super-powered ultra-star, grants temporary invulnerability, while perhaps known to all game fans, did need explanation, which was not provided.

The end fight scene where the two plumbers are invulnerable should have been as boring as any scene with an invulnerable character, and yet, somehow, it was not, since both bothers had been pounded and defeated sufficiently prior to this to show that they were human.

The scenery throughout the film is charming and well-rendered, by turns scary or lovely or sugary-sweet, but always true to the original. The action sequences are frantic, if not too frantic, filled with leaps and crashes and explosions dazzling to the eye. Restful scenes nestled between once or twice display an unexpected firefly beauty worthy of fairyland.

The voice acting was top notch, particularly Jack Black as Bowser, and Seth Rogan as Donkey Kong.

The verbal jokes and visual puns are actually funny, which is rare in a modern film. I was amused to see Mario parkour-leaping through a construction site to reach a plumbing appointment on time.

The musical score was particularly noteworthy, not just when Bowser sings the blues of unrequited love for Princess Peach, but also for the catchy pop tunes popping up at apt moments. When done awkwardly, such tune placement can be annoying, but here it was done adroitly.

The theme of longsuffering persistence to overcome, which Mario embodies, is, of course, the core theme known to any gamer who grinds his way up levels, and is particularly well selected.

Considering how easy it is to do a film adapted from a video game badly, and how hard it is to do well, we should give credit to a film who not only honors the source material, but gives us heroic heroes, exciting action, and no social justice message or other cultural vandalism.

If for no other reason than to make the bomb of Disney’s mermaid remake look bad by comparison, this is a film worthwhile to treat take one’s kids to see.