For a long time, Nintendo’s legendary Mario gaming series was built on simple foundations: the titular portly plumber rescues Princess Peach from the monstrous, spiky-shelled, and fire-breathing Bowser.
Over the past four decades, the franchise has evolved into an entertainment behemoth and introduced new enemies for Mario to ground pound, throw fireballs at, and defeat with a Super Star power-up. Of his numerous foes, though, there’s one Mario was unable to conquer: Super Mario Bros., the character’s 1993 live-action film that’s considered one of the worst video game movies of all time.
Now, Nintendo – alongside Universal Pictures and Illumination, the animation studio behind the wildly successful Despicable Me and Minions franchises – has the chance to cinematically clear Mario’s name. The Super Mario Bros. Movie aims to lay those film-based demons to rest and, for its voice cast, that theatrical redemption has felt like an eternity.
"That movie [Super Mario Bros.] was terrible," Seth Rogen, who voices Donkey Kong in The Super Mario Bros. Movie, tells TechRadar. "It was one of the most disappointing film experiences of my life. But this movie is really good. It’s written by great writers, made by fantastic directors, and it feels personally nice to redeem the Mario brothers cinematically."
Warping into a new world
The Super Mario Bros. Movie stars Christ Pratt (Guardians of the Galaxy) and Charlie Day (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) as Mario and Luigi, inseparable Brooklyn-based brothers struggling to get their new plumbing business up and running.
As Mario and Luigi tackle a particularly big job, they’re mysteriously transported through a green warp pipe, becoming separated in the process. When he lands in the magical Mushroom Kingdom without his younger sibling, Mario vows to find Luigi. Aided by the resolute Princess Peach (The Menu’s Anya Taylor-Joy) and adventure-seeking Toad (Toy Story 4’s Keegan-Michael Key), Mario embarks on an epic quest that’ll inevitably pit him against the power-hungry Bowser (Kung Fu Panda’s Jack Black), who seeks dominion over the Mushroom Kingdom and its fellow nations.
Unlike Super Mario Bros., Nintendo’s fingerprints are all over The Super Mario Bros. Movie. The entertainment giant’s unwillingness to assume creative control of Super Mario Bros.’ production is considered a major reason why that movie was a critical and commercial failure. It’s also why Nintendo has been reluctant to license the Mario franchise – or any other gaming series, for that matter – out for almost 30 years.
Recently, however, Nintendo’s burgeoning relationship with Universal – the duo has worked closely on Mario-themed attractions for Universal’s theme parks – has made the Japanese company more receptive to a Mario-based film franchise. Thus, in January 2018, Nintendo announced it was partnering with Universal and Illumination to make a new Mario movie. Crucially, it would honor the source material and deliver a film Mario fans could be proud of.
The finished product is just that: an expertly crafted movie that lives up to Mario’s legacy. From its delightful, eye-popping visuals to the seemingly infinite number of Mario Easter eggs and references, The Super Mario Bros. Movie has been painstakingly developed with the game series’ global fan base – the film’s cast included – in mind.
"There’s a ton of sentimentality in this movie," Pratt explains. "My brother and I played a lot of Nintendo growing up, which adds an extra element of excitement to voicing this character. The themes of brotherly love and never quitting resonated with me as well. Mario was the soundtrack to my childhood and I’m grateful for the opportunity to play him."
"I remember playing [1981 game] Donkey Kong in arcades and being swept up in the magic of gaming," Black adds. "I’ve had a very close relationship with games ever since, and Bowser has become my favorite Mario character. I was overjoyed to voice him. He’s the Darth Vader of the Mario universe, incredibly fun to play and, as we learn in the movie, has this softer, feminine side that was enjoyable to explore. And he breathes fire. What’s cooler than that?"
A choice of voice
Hugely successful as Mario’s gaming series is, it’s not as narratively dense – in some aspects – as other popular video game franchises. That includes The Last of Us Part 1, Naughty Dog’s action-adventure survival horror series, which was also recently adapted for television – The Last Of Us – and is undeniably one of the best HBO Max shows around.
For one, the characters inhabiting Mario’s in-game universe don’t speak. The series does have voice actors, with performer Charles Martinet ‘voicing’ Mario and Luigi since 1991. However, the bulk of Martinet’s recording booth work (and that of his fellow video game actors), has amounted to little more than verbalizing catchphrases, including "Let’s-a go!" and "Wahoo!", and generic sound effects, such as the "Oof!" sound Mario makes when he’s hit by enemies.
How, then, did The Super Mario Bros. Movie’s cast find the right inflection, cadence, and accents to bring their characters to life? For Pratt, whose Mario voice was dubbed lousy, jarring, and just "his normal speaking voice" by fans when the film’s first trailer landed online, finding Mario’s voice was the hardest part of the process.
"[It was] trial and error," he explains. "My makeup artist Jane [Galli] is actually from Brooklyn, so I bounced ideas off her. Having the directors [Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic] tell me what they wanted, and allow me to listen to recordings I’d done previously, was also super helpful. This being an animated movie, it’s a very procedural, mechanical, one-line-at-a-time process. You can really analyze stuff you’ve done before honing, fixing, and repeating it until it’s right."
"I grew up with people who lived around Rhode Island and the Bronx, so that helped," Day adds. "But trial and error, and working with the directors, was key. I trusted they had something in mind to steer me towards so I could give Luigi a voice that he’ll have now and in the future."
Key was in a similar position with Toad’s voice. The actor-comedian’s voice acting back catalog is vast, but developing the right lilt and pitch for the diminutive individual proved challenging.
"Animated characters’ voices are more exaggerated than live-action ones," he says. "You have to find some element of your own persona to match the character, but you’ve got to give it your all. There’s no room for subtlety. I’ve learned you have to blow it out and take it as far as you can, and rein it into something that makes sense. I also had to work on some technical stuff as Toad’s voice registers at a higher pitch than mine. I thought ‘what would it sound like if I was sucking on a helium balloon all the time?’ Recreating that sound and drinking lots of tea [to lubricate my vocal cords] helped."
Other cast members didn’t go to such lengths to create their character’s voices. As Rogen reveals, Donkey Kong sounds just like the The Fablemans star does every day of his life.
"I’m not an actor who creates a new voice for every role," he humorously admits. "I’m very clear with people on animated projects. I say 'I’m not like Keegan. I don’t have 1000 voices lined up in my head', so I’m lucky if the one I have works! The only thing I brought to the table was the idea that Donkey Kong hates Mario. Understanding how your character fits into a movie is just as important, if not more so, as finding their voice. Approaching Donkey Kong as someone who dislikes Mario is a good seed of comedy and allowed me to improvise a ton."
Even with Nintendo’s involvement, there’s still a degree of trepidation surrounding The Super Mario Bros. Movie.
And with good reason. Video game film adaptations have largely bombed at the box office, including the Dwayne Johnson-led Doom, the Resident Evil movie series, and the aforementioned Super Mario Bros. For Black, the possibility of The Super Marios Bros. Movie flopping "comes with the territory" in the "terrifying world of the entertainment industry".
However, recent video game movies, particularly those developed with due care and attention, have shown that game-based films can work. Pokémon Detective Pikachu, Sonic the Hedgehog 1 and 2, and even The Angry Birds Movie 1 and 2 have charmed audiences with their humor, heart, and hat-tips to the games they’re based on.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie looks like it could join those big-screen adaptations in delivering a crowd-pleasing homage to Nintendo’s iconic franchise and one of the best new movies of 2023 (read our review of The Super Mario Bros. Movie for our thoughts on the matter). Though they may be biased, its cast believes it will, too.
"As soon as people started seeing stuff from this movie – the tone, visual style, set pieces, and getting a sense of the story – it seemed like it would be good or better than they hoped," Rogen muses. "This film strikes a very good balance. When video game movies don’t work, I think they’ve tried to be too clever, subversive, or meta, like the Assassin’s Creed film. Or they’re purely driven by a studio’s desire for money and there’s no creative consideration taken."
"This film can be very influential [on the genre]," Key adds. "For small children seeing Mario for the first time or teens and adults who grew up on the games, everyone is going to get the opportunity to see these characters represented in ways they’ve not seen before. But it also keeps all of those iconic Mario elements intact. The sounds, gestures, visuals… they’re all there. As long as we’re honoring that, we can’t go wrong."
Providing The Super Mario Bros. Movie is successful, the character’s extensive gaming history means there’s a plethora of material for future movies to draw inspiration from. The Super Mario Bros. Movie's post-credits scene teases where a potential follow-up could go narratively. Meanwhile, Day has already expressed interest in starring in a Luigi’s Mansion spin-off. Rogen, too, is "definitely open" to portraying Donkey Kong again, citing the "limitless potential" of the Mario series as a way to "explore it in a fun, satisfying, creatively exciting way". As Black jokes: "Just make sure they’re animated. There’s no way I could get into a live-action Bowser costume".
Pratt and Day are of the same opinion. Right now, though, the duo is simply focused on seeing how The Super Mario Bros. Movie performs. It’s been a long wait for a fantastic Mario film adaptation and, if it proves as popular as many hope, it’ll be the theatrical redemption story fans have yearned for.
"Most of my career has been sort of adult, R-rated, very edgy comedy," Day says. "Getting to do something that has that edge taken off and is more family-friendly is always fun, and I hope we’ve done Mario justice."
"It’s a great animated movie designed for kids and adults alike," Pratt adds. "The fact it can be appreciated by everyone is a big plus, but the way it pays tribute to the Mario games is incredibly gratifying. I think we did a good job and I hope audiences feel the same way."
The Super Mario Bros. Movie opens in theaters worldwide on Wednesday, April 5.