The Super Mario Bros. Movie, the animated comedy starring on the iconic mustachioed platform-hopping plumbers, has been a big hit. Boasting an all-star voice cast consisting of Chris Pratt, Charlie Day, Anya Taylor-Joy, Jack Black, and more, the first adaptation of Nintendo’s beloved video game franchise in three decades grossed more than $377 million globally during its opening weekend.
Those are some big numbers, but not everyone is hot on Mario and Luigi’s latest cinematic adventure. As my colleague Joshua Rivera described in his review, The Super Mario Bros. Movie is “overwhelmingly gorgeous and painstakingly faithful [to Nintendo’s worlds and characters]” but has “frustratingly brief moments of idiosyncrasy that would arguably make [for] a more memorable film.” Polygon’s deputy games editor Maddy Myers had her own take: Namely, it’s an uncomplicated, breezy, risk-free movie — which makes it feel boring compared to the disastrous but memorable 1993 live-action cult classic starring Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo as Mario and Luigi.
Everyone and the Koopa Troop is weighing in with their two cents on the film, so I figured, what the hell, I might as well wade into the Discourse colosseum with my take: The Super Mario Bros. Movie is fine. Aggressively fine. It’s the sort of low-calorie, high-fructose-corn-syrup-infused entertainment you’d expect from a film tailor-made to appeal to children and “children of all ages.” Apart from a handful of notable scenes (the Rainbow Road sequence, Mario and Luigi’s Kamen Rider/Neon Genesis Evangelion-style combo kick in the finale), it’s the type of animated comedy that will dissipate from your mind the moment you walk out of the theater.
But at several points during the film, I felt like I had seen a version of this exact same movie done before, but better. (And no, I’m not talking about the very, very similar premise of 1993’s Super Mario Bros.) I’m talking about Wreck-It Ralph, the 2012 Disney animated comedy about a sentient arcade villain who rebels against his role as a “bad guy” to become a hero in his own right. It’s the best Super Mario Bros. movie that isn’t about the Super Mario Bros., and it engages with a defining element of Mario’s cultural legacy that goes completely unacknowledged in the universe of the Illumination’s 2022 feature: Mario is a video game character.
You’re probably saying, “What the hell are you talking about? There are more video game references in the Mario movie than I can count.” On that point, you’d be right. There are so many video game Easter eggs nestled away in the creases, cracks, crannies, and corners of damn near every frame of The Super Mario Bros. Movie that creating a comprehensive list of them might be both futile to assemble and boring to read. But I’m not talking about references, I’m talking about Mario as a relatable, fleshed-out character who also reflects the specific thing we love most about him.
Throughout the 40 years of his existence, Mario has been a lot of things: a doctor, a postal worker, an Olympic athlete, a soccer player, a golfer, a parkour-hopping vigilante janitor with a talking water-hose backpack, a race car driver, a carpenter, and yes, most famously, a plumber. But before all of those things, Mario was a video game character, an evident fact that The Super Mario Bros. Movie obliquely references, but never fully acknowledges. Within the universe of the film, Mario and his loveable klutz of a brother Luigi are “real”; they have a real family of extended relatives and real jobs as entrepreneur plumbers. They got real bills to pay, and a real asshole of a former boss with visor shades that make him look like the kind of guy who films himself behind the wheel of his big ol’ automobile, ranting for social media about how minorities are scary and women are wrong for not finding him attractive.
Video games actually exist in the world of The Super Mario Bros. Movie: A Jumpman arcade cabinet is briefly seen in the film’s Punch-Out Pizzeria, and later, Mario himself sullenly plays Kid Icarus on what appears to be a Nintendo Entertainment System. (Which raises a slew of existential questions I do not have the time or space to unpack here.) When Mario’s legacy as a video game character is touched on in the film itself, it’s done obliquely, through scenes of him and his brother parkouring through a Brooklyn construction area as if navigating a platforming section, or running an “obstacle course” created for the purpose of ensuring that Princess Peach is ready to assume the throne of the Mushroom Kingdom. (Why the Mushroom Kingdom’s rulership is determined by a hovering platforming level is never explicitly stated, but whatever. Monarchies are patently nonsensical to begin with.)
I suspect that one possible reason why Mario’s existence as a video game character is never addressed is not because of any special lack of creativity or insight on part of the film’s creators, but simply because Wreck-It Ralph already did that premise better than they could.
Wreck-It Ralph is to video games what Who Framed Roger Rabbit is to the so-called golden age of American animation: a loving, feature-length tribute to a massively influential medium, packed with sight gags lovingly crafted to pay homage to that medium’s history. Both films also tell memorable, distinctive stories that stand independent of those homages. That last part is perhaps the biggest point of contention between critics and fans of The Super Mario Bros. Movie. The movie is a crowd-pleaser, for sure, but its focus on throwing sight gags at a presumably video game-savvy audience, while offering very little for anyone outside of that demographic, inadvertently reflects the insularity of video game culture itself.
That’s why Wreck-It Ralph stands out by comparison. It’s a video game comedy with characters and events that are strong enough to appeal even to audiences who don’t necessarily play video games themselves. The barometer of gratification for that film isn’t solely reliant on how many references are packed into its run time. Wreck-It Ralph has loads of game references, from character cameos to direct references to arcade culture, gameplay, and much more. But the story itself doesn’t hinge on that; it hinges on the protagonists’ personalities, and the performances of John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jack McBrayer, Alan Tudyk, and more. In comparison to the charisma and heart they bring to their movie, Mario in The Super Mario Bros. Movie has very little personality, attributable both to the character’s reputation as an archetypal video game protagonist and to Chris Pratt’s “Xerox of a La Croix flavor”-like vocal performance.
If you loved The Super Mario Bros. Movie and think it’s the best expression of a video game character imaginable, that’s fine. I’m not here to yuck your yum or pillory your tastes. This isn’t the article for you. It’s for folks who did not enjoy The Super Mario Bros. Movie. And my message to them is this: Go watch Wreck-It Ralph instead. It’s a funny, charming, original cinematic take on the legacy of arcade games that fully engages with the idea of you, the viewer, actually playing and enjoying games. It tells a compelling story of unlikely friendship and redemptive self-actualization, while also paying loving tribute to the medium’s most iconic franchises and characters. You’re not going to get that from The Super Mario Bros. Movie, so stop looking for it there. Your entertainment is in another castle.
Wreck-It Ralph is streaming on Disney Plus, and is available for rental or purchase on Amazon, Vudu, and other digital platforms.