Illumination founder Chris Meledandri was originally a key figure of beleaguered B-tier kids animation outfit Blue Sky Studios. After making a splashy debut in 2002 that caught much of the industry off-guard with the unique Ice Age, Blue Sky settled extraordinarily quickly into a rut of barely-passable, lowest-common-denominator, uninspired, and alternately boring or annoying slop. The once-fresh Ice Age was very quickly ran into the ground with sequel after sequel that completely lost sight of what made the original so enjoyable, a pair of animal-based musical comedies relied more on stunt-casting than providing a single lasting image or sequence, and their attempt to tackle a Dr. Seuss tale was… fine, I guess.
So, when Blue Sky were handed the reins to the Peanuts IP, hopes amongst those of us with major foundational attachments to Charles Schulz’s beloved comic strip and TV specials weren’t exactly high. Here was an animation studio whose best work was well over a decade behind them, who never seemed to be aiming higher than the bare minimum, and were turning in the same exact product over and over again. And these guys were going to be responsible for the first feature-length Peanuts movie in over 30 years? Yet, incredibly, when the chips were down, Blue Sky got their shit together and made a movie more than worthy of the Peanuts legacy. One that was funny, moving, insightful, uniquely tailored to the IP, and told a satisfying story even whilst it also functioned as a greatest hits of recognisable Peanuts iconography.
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Meledandri left Blue Sky in early 2007, deep into production on that Dr. Seuss adaptation, and with Illumination he proceeded to redo the playbook from Blue Sky wholesale. After making a big splashy debut in 2010 that caught much of the industry off-guard with the unique Despicable Me, Illumination quickly downshifted to a string of barely-passable, lowest-common-denominator, uninspired, and alternately boring or annoying slop. The Despicable Me franchise suffered fast diminishing returns and a loss of the witty slapstick amorality so central to the original’s fun, there have been a pair of animal-based musical comedies which rely more on stunt-casting than providing a single lasting image or sequence, and their two attempts to tackle a Dr. Seuss tale ranged from “Despicable Me in a Grinch skinsuit” to “a total bastardisation of The Lorax’s entire message”. The key difference in both studios, however, was that Blue Sky were always just barely scraping by whilst Illumination are the biggest animation studio in the world.
Why that’s occurred is hard to specify, but Illumination’s knack for branding likely has something to do with it. Their house style is bright, distinctive, eminently appealing and inoffensive, and very merchandisable. Their trailers are some of the best in the business; arranged like mini-movies, usually around slightly truncated versions of each film’s biggest comic set-piece, so viewers know exactly what they’re going to get when they sit down to watch the full thing. Illumination movies are super formulaic. Every single one of them is cribbing from the same outline as Despicable Me to some degree: basic plot, excessive focus on gags and set-pieces, loud comic side characters who seem tailormade for Happy Meal toys, a breakneck pace that refuses to settle on anything for a millisecond longer than necessary, an over-reliance on pop songs to keep both kids and adults stimulated, and celebrities putting in little effort (although one of them will at least try a silly voice).
And if you’re not currently wondering why we’re 640 words into a review of The Super Mario Bros. Movie without even the most cursory of Mario mentions yet, then congratulations! You’re ahead of the game! For everyone else, The Super Mario Bros. Movie theoretically should be the point where Illumination finally get their shit together. Inarguably the biggest and most iconic video game character of all-time, finally making his return to the big-screen after 30 years. A beloved institution for gamers young and old who have foundational attachments to his platformers/RPGs/kart racers/various sports franchises. This is an Event. If ever there was a time for this studio whose best work is now a decade behind them, who never seem to aim higher than the bare minimum and only ever just hit their target, and keep turning in the same exact product over and over again, it’s The Super Mario Bros. Movie.
And when the chips were down, Illumination… made the exact same movie they always do. The bare goddamn minimum. A relentless conveyer belt of recognisable, marketable imagery and noises meant to substitute for actual character work, plot, jokes, or anything of substance. If anything, Mario may be the end goal of Illumination’s fixation on crafting excellent trailers rather than memorable films since this plays like a 90 minute trailer for a hypothetically more entertaining movie than what they’ve actually provided.
Honestly, I struggle to find much of substance to say about the movie because there is so little here. Whilst writer Matthew Fogel at least doesn’t overcomplicate the premise – Mario (Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day) are plumber brothers from Brooklyn who find a mysterious pipe which transports them both to the Mushroom Kingdom, a realm under attack from the evil super-star owning Bowser (Jack Black) who wants to marry Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy) – neither he nor the teams at Illumination and Nintendo do anything interesting to beef it up. Static can-do-spirit protagonists like Mario are hard to write for, but surely we could’ve given him something other than daddy issues to work through? (The same daddy issues that Johnny the gorilla went through in Illumination’s own Sing, by the way.)
You can argue that Fogel, directors Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic, and Illumination are somewhat hamstrung by the fact that the mainline Mario universe is famously archetypal, because story is way down on the games’ priority list. But everybody’s refusal or inability to think outside the box here means that all of the characters make less of an impression than their video game counterparts. The expression of their personalities in the games come through player action, movement style, character animation. Here in the movie, with that interactivity stripped away, their personalities are reduced to one trait mostly realised through dialogue: Luigi is cowardly, Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen) is a knucklehead, Peach has been refashioned into a bland girlboss who arguably makes Mario unnecessary to his own story. Few of them go on even the outline of a character arc, the vast majority are separated from each other for most of the film so they don’t get interesting interactions, and everybody bar Jack Black is doing the most phoning-in that their vocal performances can possibly get away with.
This lack of imagination or deeper thought as to how best to bring Mario to the non-interactive big screen runs throughout. “What jokes could we make in the Mario world?” “Well, you know how Mario is known for eating mushrooms in the games? What if we made a running gag of the fact that he hates eating mushrooms!” There is only one set-piece in the entire movie which is remotely fun, well-executed, and tells a story with actions leading to consequences and peril, that being Bowser’s ambush of the gang on Rainbow Road. The rest dangle recognisable power-ups in a viewer’s face, are borderline incoherent in their action direction, and end almost as quickly as they start. Translating the abstract lands of the Mushroom Kingdom and its neighbouring realms to a narrative film poses a conundrum of how best to create a convincing land without losing its quintessential Mario-ness. One nobody here even attempts to solve, instead montaging us at a breakneck pace through easter-egg iconography, like loading screens, and telling most of the story in flat boring rooms or arenas.
There is a good chance this might not sink in to a viewer for a good while, since, in true Illumination fashion, Mario moves at a mile a minute and refuses to let anything breathe. It’s a relentless barrage of new locations, new characters, new narrative developments, new recognisable Mario and Nintendo references designed to overload the critical stimuli and provide a constant rush of “I know that thing!” dopamine hits. But the hollowness of the core, the cravenness of the movie’s commercialism, the emptiness and insincerity of the few attempts to present an emotional heart always break through.
Brian Tyler’s score is actually really damn good, weaving in dozens of Mario themes and jingles whilst still creating something unique to this movie, but Illumination keep resorting to incongruous pop song placements during big montages. The most egregious example of this comes when we arrive in the Kingdom of Kongs and a kart driving sequence, the closest this movie comes to trying to sell us on some part of this world being a believable tangible space, ends up being set to a-ha’s ‘Take on Me’. It does not fit the film lyrically, its 80s synthpop sound is at total odds with the visual and audio palette otherwise established, and Tyler chronologically has a song on the OST which would fit this scene. But no, ‘Take on Me’ cos 80s pop song needle-drops are all the rage nowadays so here’s one of the most obvious.
Despite being such a vacuous white noise machine of a film, there are a couple of bright spots. Bowser retains his outsized character and the film does not shy away from the unrequited Peach crush aspect which, combined with Black’s alternately pathetic and menacing vocal performance, makes him the most entertaining thing here by far. Although Illumination fail to craft a single memorably arranged image, Mario on a technical level looks superb. The Nintendo art-style slides like a glove into the cartoony high-fidelity of Illumination’s house-style, buoyed by excellent lighting. …err, I already mentioned Rainbow Road. …oh, there’s this one side character who spends the movie as Bowser’s prisoner and is full of suicidal ideation yet is voiced by a literal child! That’s kinda funny, although more reminiscent of Horvath & Jelenic’s Teen Titans GO! than anything to do with Mario…
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“You’re overthinking it,” I imagine the response to this review will be. “It’s a video game movie made for the youngest of kids. Even you yourself say that it’s just competent rather than bad. Why are you coming down so hard on Mario and Illumination?” Well, because I don’t accept any of those excuses. Firstly, video game adaptations don’t have to be competent. Literally just last month, we were all talking about how great the Last of Us adaptation was; Arcane was Netflix’s biggest animated hit in years; and Rampage proved that you can make a proper fun movie out of material that gives you only scraps to work with so long as you put in the effort. Secondly, even the youngest of kids deserve better than low-effort timewasters like this. Just cos you’re making something for kids, doesn’t mean you can half-ass the job. Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, Turning Red, The Mitchells vs. The Machines, Shaun the Sheep. All kids movies; most aimed at the same young target audience as Mario; all with more heart, ambition, humour, excitement, character, and joie de vivre than Mario conjures up.
Third and finally, Illumination are the biggest animation studio on the planet. That may have been arguable at one point, but with Disney fumbling hard after Frozen 2, Pixar stuck in the Disney+ mines, and DreamWorks on life-support, it’s no longer deniable. Chris Meledandri’s name appears in the opening titles of the biggest animated films on the planet… yet still he and his studio refuse to aim any higher than “passable”, a target they can’t even be bothered to hit the bullseye of. They don’t make movies, they make products, they make advertisements, they make babysitting tools. If ever there was a time for Illumination to come good, get their shit together, and aim higher in a manner befitting their industry stature, it was now. It was with the Mario IP.
And they just made the same shrug of a feature they’ve been doing for nearly 10 years. At least Blue Sky made The Peanuts Movie.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie is out now in cinemas.