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The Stupefying Success of “The Super Mario Bros. Movie”

Last weekend, “The Super Mario Bros. Movie,” an animated-film version of the Nintendo video-game franchise, surpassed a billion dollars in worldwide ticket sales. Its première, on April 5th, was the biggest opening weekend of any animated film ever, beating out the previous record holder, Disney’s “Frozen II.” “Mario Bros.,” which stars Chris Pratt as the voice of Mario and Anya Taylor-Joy as Princess Peach, has also attracted a robust international audience, earning more than five hundred and thirty million dollars abroad. Recycling old intellectual property is a default formula in today’s Hollywood; nostalgia sells. Still, the scale of “Mario Bros.” ’s success has been striking. Although the Nintendo games were introduced in the United States four decades ago, adapting the Mario universe was a largely untested prospect. The only precedent was a bizarre live-action movie from 1993, featuring forcibly evolved dinosaurs and strange reptilian costumes that would be considered far too outré for children’s movies today. It flopped, earning less than the roughly forty-eight million dollars it cost to make.

One challenge, for any Mario adaptation, is that the games have no narrative element to speak of. The only “plot,” such as it were, is Mario’s journey to rescue Princess Peach from a castle; to accomplish this, Mario (joined at times by his brother Luigi) must jump between platforms and travel down pipes, defeating walking mushrooms, vengeful turtles, and, finally, Bowser, the spiky, fire-breathing dinosaur-turtle who kidnapped the princess. Mario himself has no discernible personality. He barely says anything besides “Wahoo!” When he dies, one feels no sympathy or regret; in fact, a player will likely cause Mario to die countless times before beating the game. Surely, the screenwriters of any new movie adaptation would be required to come up with dramatic stakes out of whole cloth.

If only it were so. “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” follows the bare outlines of the video games without bothering to fill them in. In fairness, there is a semblance of backstory: Mario and Luigi are struggling self-employed plumbers in Brooklyn. While trying to prove themselves by confronting an enormous urban flood, the brothers get sucked into the video-game world via an underground pipe. There they encounter Princess Peach, the involuntary ruler of the Mushroom Kingdom, which is inhabited by thousands of mushroom-headed creatures all named Toad. They also meet the evil Bowser, whose unrequited love of Peach has driven him to invade her peaceful kingdom with his skeleton-turtle army. Bowser is voiced by Jack Black, who manages to imbue the character with a desperate charm. (A lovesick piano ballad that Bowser sings, taking advantage of Black’s musical talents, hit the Billboard Hot 100 in mid-April.) The rest of the characters are pixel-flat: Peach is a girlboss; Mario is brave and tireless; Luigi is cowardly. Even the attempts to devise catchy one-liners land with a thud. During one racing-to-escape scene, after Peach pulls a dramatic stunt, Toad shouts at her, “That is how you princess!”

Productions meant for children are perfectly capable of possessing emotional heft, even those that draw on desiccated I.P. “The Lego Movie” managed to turn literal building blocks into a moving coming-of-age story. The Disney+ series “The Mandalorian” enlivened its cutesy Yoda mascot with film-noir moodiness. But “Mario Bros.” fills its ninety-two-minute run time by checking through a list of video-game callouts. Like the games themselves, the movie follows Mario through a series of themed levels: the Donkey Kong level, incorporating Nintendo’s world of ape characters; the Mario Kart level, with races down Rainbow Road; the underwater level, featuring lurking sea creatures. The movie’s soundtrack, by Koji Kondo, provides more Easter eggs in the form of orchestral themes drawn from the games. Mario surpasses each level in turn as the story proceeds tensionlessly toward Bowser’s inevitable defeat. Video games move from left to right; bad guys get beaten. Those are the rules.

I asked Julia Alexander, the director of strategy at the media-research firm Parrot Analytics, what turned “Mario Bros.” into a runaway megahit. She theorized that audiences might be tiring of endless Marvel-style superhero franchises and looking for something—anything—different. “The comic-book era of the mid-two-thousands is running into issues; the gaming era may be upon us at both the theatrical and small-screen level,” Alexander said. For sheer name recognition, Mario is hard to beat. She added, “He is one of the very few video-game characters everyone on Earth knows.” But the new film is comfortingly familiar in other ways, too. It was created by Illumination, the animation studio behind such sprawling franchises as “Despicable Me,” “Minions,” and “The Secret Life of Pets,” each of which has earned hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office. In keeping with those other films, Illumination rendered “Mario Bros.” as a three-dimensional C.G.I. world of rounded, fuzzy figures that look almost made of felt. This recognizable aesthetic lets the characters slot neatly into the American animation landscape, making Mario and Luigi feel as endemic to the big screen as hoards of yellow minions. It offers a novel opportunity to “see Mario on a big screen as high-quality animation,” Alexander said.

The movie critic Brian Lloyd described “Mario Bros.” to me as “the animated equivalent of keys being dangled in front of you”—a shiny and noisy infantile distraction. When I asked parents about their children’s reactions to the movie, they cited the kids’ satisfaction at catching the film’s many video-game references: a mushroom that makes Bowser tiny, say, or Super Smash Bros.-style fight scenes. There were references seemingly designed for adults, too. One parent enjoyed a scene in which a starlike Luma creature from Super Mario Galaxy imprisoned in Bowser’s dungeon becomes nihilistic and speaks longingly of death. (I found the moment too jarring to be funny given the rest of the film’s total naïveté, but, then again, I am not a parent on a forced diet of kids’ entertainment.)

The video-game industry is deceptively large—larger, in fact, than either film or television, though it can seem almost invisible if you aren’t an active participant. American consumers spent some forty-seven billion dollars on video games in 2022. Mario Kart Deluxe 8, a reissue of an earlier Mario racing game, has sold more than fifty million copies since it launched in 2017. Like a Marvel franchise, Mario has been spun out into multiple new games, remakes, and spinoffs every year: Mario Golf, Mario Party, Luigi’s Mansion. Because Nintendo hadn’t even attempted a Mario movie in decades, there was an untapped nostalgia in millions of consumers who remember the game fondly from childhood or still play new iterations. By that logic, the movie would reach people by looking as much like the game as possible; the more rote and literal the resemblance, the better.

“Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves,” an adaptation of the tabletop role-playing game, débuted in March, to a more muted audience response. The film earned less than two hundred million dollars in worldwide box-office sales, making it a hit but not a huge one. As a brand name, D. & D. is not nearly as mainstream as Mario. But, in other ways, D. & D. lends itself much more easily to successful adaptation. It’s a board game entirely built around narrative; players create elaborate characters and make choices about how they behave. Each playthrough is distinct and unpredictable. With Mario, you always know exactly what you’re getting, but the lack of suspense isn’t necessarily a hindrance. Alexander said that video-game adaptations, like all filmic “universe-building,” need two core ingredients to thrive: “love and adoration,” both for the individual characters and for the world in which they exist. Nintendo knew it had that with Mario, and calculated correctly that it needed little else.

One of the more effective scenes in “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” is a brief shot, early on, of Mario alone in his bedroom. His family has just made fun of his plan to start a plumbing business with Luigi, and he is feeling dejected. So he does what many sad young men in his situation would do: in the dim room, on an old television screen, he plays a pixelated game on the original Nintendo Entertainment System. The diegetic game provides him a brief escape from his surroundings, into a world more contained and controllable, with familiar characters and attainable goals. One father told me that he took his eighteen-month-old son to see the movie. The child had never seen a Mario video game before, but he found the images absorbing nonetheless. After the viewing, the child discovered a Bowser figurine abandoned at a playground. Recognizing the character from the movie, he let out a surprised “Whoa,” then played with the toy for a while—another converted customer. ♦

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