Corporate nihilism for a post–‘The Super Mario Bros. Movie’ apocalypse

By Ryan Yau, Living Arts Co-Editor

I should be stoned for enjoying “The Super Mario Bros. Movie.”

The movie represents everything I dislike about contemporary children’s cinema: a transparent effort to churn out the next big franchise; lazy audience appeal based on nostalgic markers of intellectual property; high-profile voice performances with little aptness or enthusiasm; the indelibly greasy sheen of a movie so aware of its essential money-making function it refuses to have an earnest moment of emotion.

Yet, I liked it. My facile enjoyment of “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” forebodes what I feared would happen: the death of my days as a cynic, and my slow submission into a state of complacent corporate nihilism.

Unlike a turtle on a cloud, allow me to backtrack. “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” is cute.

It follows a competent monomyth of Mario and Luigi, two regular—if inexplicably undersized—human plumbers whose primary struggle is that their dad thinks plumbing is a joke. One day the brothers fall into a pipe, and Mario lands in the Mushroom Kingdom while Luigi falls into an unknown land.

The rest of the movie follows Mario on an unwittingly stakes-less odyssey as he searches for Luigi, accompanied by Princess Peach, a Toad, and Donkey Kong. They face the banal galactic conflict of Bowser, who wants to marry Peach and/or rule the world.

For many children, “Super Mario” was a gateway drug to video games. Likewise, “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” seems designed for newly-conscious audiences—the story is the hero’s journey, hitting the right proverbial story beats on the figurative DK Bongo, but with an expediency indicative of the awareness that everything it’s doing has been done before.

The movie’s whirlwind pace may even suggest dubious intent, bluntly rotating between as many famous Nintendo setpieces as possible. In each, Mario resolves every conflict with minimal struggle and the help of deus-ex-machina power-ups, which as a player may be rewarding but as a spectator almost always feels unearned.

It seems everything is in service of giving the audience a massive hit of nostalgia-infused dopamine. And for most of the world, it overwhelmingly succeeded: having just had the most successful opening weekend for any animated movie, and it is already projected to be the biggest movie of the year.

Even I, whose experiences with Mario are purely parenthetical, was caught up by the movie’s mnemonic pandering: every Smash Bros. or Mario Kart stage retracing a fragmented chronicle of sleepovers, every iconic sound effect scratching a forgotten itch in my inner ear, revealing to me the obvious fact of Mario’s mustachioed ubiquity in the popular zeitgeist of the last 40 years.

Not to say the movie has no earnestly admirable qualities. Jack Black as Bowser is a genuine delight, and Seth Rogen as Seth Rogen Donkey Kong is consistently entertaining, if mainly for his performance’s perspicuity. Besides some choppiness, the animation style manages to expressively translate the block design of Super Mario’s world in a way that is, in its best moments, gorgeous.

The movie’s humor—simplistic but primally appealing in the way many children’s movies are—is more parts amusing than obnoxious. Much of it is in the form of self-aware pleasantries poking fun at characteristics of the Mario universe, like Donkey Kong’s braggadocious propensities or the eponymous Italian plumber’s anomalous lack of height.

But I can’t help sensing something dubious in a company reselling an experience they’ve already been selling for years. Its efforts to present itself as in on the joke of its own corporate disposition only alienate me from the carefree exterior of its money-grabbing palms. Even the movie’s title is so uninspiredly on-the-nose as to almost reach ingenuity.

Albeit “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” is hardly the most sinister of these corporate-driven franchise-aspirationals. There are definitely people with vested interest in the Mario franchise who worked on this movie, as evidenced by the care put into detailing the movie’s backdrops and the consistent video-game logic of the world at play throughout the movie.

If nothing groundbreaking, it creates an accessible story with characters and motives from the bones of a platform game, and its simplicity is hardly a sin—some of my favorite movies follow elementary story structures, and “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” is formally competent enough to be visually worthwhile.

But regardless “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” piles on to a growing trend of friend-shaped movies produced by multinational companies, indirectly raising the barrier of entry for novel works from independent creatives. And its worldwide success means Nintendo’s next step of entertainment dominance is secured in the mainstream movie sector.

I know the age-old comeback, the one that advises me to stop being a loser and just have fun. But each successive box-office success for a major-IP work is a win for art that is purely exoteric, and facilitates a landscape of popular media that emphasizes reiteration over innovation.

The fact is I’d already paid to see this movie, and my soliloquizing “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” has no impact on the present state of affairs. It’s far more pragmatic not to care, and at least the movie is a good time.