'The Super Mario Bros. Movie': It's-a meh! : Pop Culture Happy Hour In The Super Mario Bros. Movie., Chris Pratt and Charlie Day play Mario and Luigi, two New York City plumbers who get transported to another world. Soon, Mario must team-up with Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy) to stop Bowser (Jack Black) from destroying the Mushroom Kingdom. The animated movie is heavy on Easter eggs that draw from Nintendo's many decades of video games.

'The Super Mario Bros. Movie': It's-a meh!

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"The Super Mario Bros. Movie" is an animated feature-length spinoff of the many Nintendo games that feature Mario, Luigi, Peach, Bowser and others. Chris Pratt stars as Mario, and the movie has got Nintendo Easter eggs galore. I'm Stephen Thompson. Today, we are talking about "The Super Mario Bros. Movie" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR FROM NPR. Joining me today is Amil Niazi, freelance writer and columnist at The Cut.

Hi, Amil.

AMIL NIAZI: Hi, Stephen.

THOMPSON: Also with us is Daisy Rosario, senior supervising producer of audio at Slate, where she just relaunched "Dear Prudence," Slate's advice podcast.

Hey, Daisy.

DAISY ROSARIO: Hey, Stephen.

THOMPSON: And rounding out the panel is Ronald Young Jr. He is the host of the film and television review podcast "Leaving The Theater."

Hi, Ronald.

RONALD YOUNG JR: It's-a me, Ronald, Stephen.

THOMPSON: One of us was bound to do it. I thought it was going to be me. Glad you got it out of the way.


THOMPSON: So in "The Super Mario Bros. Movie," we first meet Mario and Luigi as plumbers in New York City. They are voiced by Chris Pratt and Charlie Day. Soon they are sent through a portal to another world, where we encounter a bunch of the characters you know and love. Anya Taylor-Joy plays Princess Peach. Jack Black plays Bowser. Keegan-Michael Key plays Toad. Seth Rogen plays Donkey Kong, and Fred Armisen plays Cranky Kong. And the story is more or less what you might expect. Bowser wants to marry Peach and rule the world. Our heroes band together to stop him.

"The Super Mario Bros. Movie" is not the first attempt to turn Mario and Luigi into movie stars. In fact, it was just about 30 years ago when the live-action Super Mario Bros. became one of the most notorious box office disasters of all time. This time around, the movie is animated and draws a little bit from a bunch of different games from Nintendo's decades of Mario world building. Mario and Luigi have access to lots of power-ups, like the super mushroom and the fire flower, the way they do, starting with the Super Mario Bros. game back in 1985. There are references to many other more recent Nintendo games as well. There's a Mario Kart-style chase. There's a Smash Bros. style fight. You get the idea.

"The Super Mario Bros. Movie" was directed by Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic, who created "Teen Titans Go." It's written by Matthew Fogel, who worked on "The Lego Movie 2" and "Minions: Rise Of Gru." "The Super Mario Bros. Movie" is in theaters now.

Amil Niazi, I'm going to start with you. What did you think of "The Super Mario Bros. Movie"?

NIAZI: I really liked it. I didn't like that you just said the last one was 30 years ago because I feel personally attacked about my age. But, of course, I remember that flop, and I remember thinking - well, you've done Mario and Luigi so dirty with this film, and it's so sad that it's taken three decades to sort of return the favor and give us the movie that we wanted. And I really found myself enjoying this film.

There was a lot of laughter in my screening, which I think bodes well for all of the Mario nerds that are going to come out and watch this movie. I love the world building. I thought - all the nods to the different, you know, variations of Mario were in there. The music cues were wonderful. It just hit this, like, exact, perfect nostalgic nerve for me. And I know that my kids are also going to love it.

You know, there's not a lot of family fare at the box office these days. You know, there was a viral tweet about this going around, that we need more family movies you can take your kids to. And I imagine I'll be going to see this multiple times with my kids. So I think, you know, despite the early, you know, sort of hate for the accents and the voices, the movie delivered exactly what it needed to, so I was happy with it.

THOMPSON: All right. How about you, Ronald?

YOUNG: I agree with Amil in a lot of ways, but I think - I found that the references - they were scratching the right itch. I found that seeing Mario on screen was beautifully animated. I loved being in the world. All of that was great. It's definitely an improvement on the original film. I really even like how they set them up as real Brooklyn plumbers. They were really tying it into the real world in a way. And they start off by - there's a Jumpman reference, and there's all of this real New York stuff happening. There's a side scroller part early in the movie - just all of that I really enjoyed. But I found that when the movie ended, it felt a little abrupt to me.

As the credits started to roll, I remember thinking, I'm already forgetting this movie. I'm forgetting a lot of what was in it, and I didn't necessarily feel that way about, well, insert any Pixar film here, or "The Lego Movie," for instance. I didn't feel that way about those. I felt like those stuck with me a little bit more. And in some ways, I'm remembering some things, and I'm remembering a lot of the references - like, you know, the things that did make me excited. But I'm not remembering much about the actual plot of this movie.

That doesn't mean that it won't be a hit, because I think this movie is going to be a hit for a lot of the reasons that Amil said, which is that people are going to take their kids. There's going to be, like, a lot of 30- and 40-year-olds in there with their kids that are all going to enjoy this experience together, and I think on that front, they nailed it. But just kind of being, like, a movie that has any more substance - there's not much there.

THOMPSON: All right. How about you, Daisy?

ROSARIO: Yeah. I want to just make sure people at least understand where I'm coming from, so I do want to acknowledge that I'm starting this off in the, like, I am not and never planned to be a parent, and I'm overly invested in this movie because I grew up with Mario in so many ways, and, like, it stayed with me. My first true, like, memory of Christmas is like getting an NES and playing Duck Hunt with my grandfather and things like that. When I lost my father in, like, my late 20s, I turned to Super Mario Galaxy to, like, help me with my grief 'cause I needed to keep my brain occupied and not talk to humans - you know, things like that. So I just want to give you that so that we understand where I'm coming from when I say that I liked this movie, I think, as much as I can, considering that they did not bother with a script, which was really frustrating.

Like, a lot of what Ron said, I think, sticks for me in that you have this incredible world. You have this huge amount of IP and backstory and all of these things, and I just felt like instead of making really good use of them and going, like, well, how can we explore this world in ways that we haven't explored it before? - like, it felt like they gave the screenwriter, like, a list of big elements that they wanted to make sure ended up in there, and then that person tried to put them in the order that made the most sense to them. There's just so much fun to be had when you are given the opportunity to explore a world that you've explored in many ways, but not in this way. And that, to me, really feels like the missed opportunity.

That said, though, I do want to acknowledge it looks beautiful. Like, it's really fun to look at as a fan of not just Mario, but, like, Nintendo in general. Obviously, there are a lot of moments that bring up Super Mario Brothers 3D or 3D Land for people because, visually, like, it kind of can't help but go there. But it is really fun to see some of that stuff. And I know that when this is out on streaming, I'm going to want to, like, pause it and see some of the details in the background. Like, the visuals are great, but there's, like, no real story, and there are just so many ways that they could have tried to make a story.

THOMPSON: Yeah. So, well, first...

YOUNG: (Laughter).

NIAZI: (Laughter).

YOUNG: Not starting like that, Stephen.

THOMPSON: Well, first, my history with these characters and with Nintendo, I mean, goes back 40 years. I have a Mario Bros. arcade machine in my house - the 1983 game with the turtles and the crabs and...



THOMPSON: ...Going through the sewer pipes. And I remember when that game came out - because I am 50 years old - and being like, Mario's the good guy. Like, what? 'Cause Mario is the bad guy in Donkey Kong. This is how far back I go. And my kids are deep Nintendo. They care deeply about these characters. They have been playing with these characters their whole lives. And I have seen a million different iterations of this. I've - I play Mario Kart with my family. I have been kind of swimming in this world for a really, really long time.

You guys touched on it, particularly Daisy and Ronald. This script exists entirely to check boxes. Amil mentioned laughter in the audience. I really - like, look, I'm not here to judge how anyone laughs, but my guess is that is laughter of recognition and not laughter at jokes because there are virtually none. There's a certain pacing in the dialogue that suggests a joke would be present, and sometimes that can trigger a response, but most of my enjoyment of this film came from kind of scanning...


THOMPSON: ...Backgrounds.


THOMPSON: You know, Ronald mentioned the Jumpman. Like, there's an arcade machine, and it's Jumpman, which is the original name for Mario. And, you know, just kind of some of these - you're seeing these little references to lots and lots of different Mario and Mario-adjacent games. And that's fun. It's watchable. I wasn't sitting there, like, furious, I was just waiting for a movie to break out.

YOUNG: (Laughter).

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

NIAZI: (Laughter).

THOMPSON: There are movies that have proven you can smash a bunch of IP together and get something great.

NIAZI: Yeah.

THOMPSON: "Chip 'N Dale: Rescue Rangers" smashes...



THOMPSON: ...Together a whole bunch...


THOMPSON: ...Of IP and does it with hilarious jokes.

ROSARIO: Really fun, yeah.

THOMPSON: Hire those guys.


THOMPSON: Like, I wanted more movie, I guess.

ROSARIO: Right. Well, and then the most obvious one, too, "The Lego Movie." Like, it's just really...

THOMPSON: Right, of course.

ROSARIO: ...Hard to not be reminded of that, also. Like, look, I don't like Chris Pratt. I understand the internet, like, has complained about him. But let's even just, like, put that aside. Like, it's weird to have him be the lead voice in this movie if you don't want people to think of "The Lego Movie." Like, you're reminding me of a better movie. And that's the thing. I haven't even seen the D&D movie, but that's genuinely - like, I found myself thinking, wow, you know, from what people are telling me about the D&D movie, it sounds like they did what I wish this movie did, which is to not just try to hit a bunch of stuff that people know, but to, like, think of the most thoughtful ways to connect those things and really build on stuff and explore it, which is not what we did here.

THOMPSON: Well, Daisy, you mentioned Chris Pratt. And a lot of the conversation about this movie leading up to it revolved around the casting of Chris Pratt as Mario. There were people who were mad they didn't cast Charles Martinet, who has been the voice of Mario in the video games for years and years and years and years. I understand casting a celebrity. How did you guys - I'm going to start with you, Amil - like, how did you guys feel about how Chris Pratt fit into this movie?

NIAZI: I really think my biggest criticism would be the voices. And I think that they really did these characters dirty by not having, you know, better voice talent in the mix and just relying on celebrity names to sort of get people in the door. I think people would have come in the door no matter who was the voice of Mario...


NIAZI: ...As long as they did a good job. By stacking the list - like, Anya Taylor-Joy, come on, you give nothing. Like, you know, it's the Dua Lipa dancing of the voice world. And I think that they really could have...


NIAZI: You know the meme.

ROSARIO: I just need to acknowledge how much I love that reference.

NIAZI: You know, they really could have done an amazing job of having the kind of talent that you mention that is nostalgic and takes us back into that world. And I think because the world building, visually, was so strong, to have the voices - except for Bowser, I really enjoyed Bowser and...



NIAZI: ...Everything about him.

YOUNG: Yes, plus one.

NIAZI: Jack Black was perfect. It was perfect. Other than Bowser, I really thought every character was taken down a notch because of the fact that a celebrity was voicing it. And literally, it sounded like they came in, read the script and left. Like, there was not that extra layer of inhabiting the role. So that would be my biggest criticism, is, you know, we don't need celebrities to come into a movie like this because the IP is so strong, because you have generational interest in the film. So, you know, it was so unnecessary to rely on those big names 'cause it did nothing for the film.

ROSARIO: It really does nothing, Amil. I just - I love everything you said. I just want to acknowledge that.

NIAZI: Thank you, Daisy.

ROSARIO: No. Like, specifically with Anya Taylor-Joy, who is an actor I really enjoy in general - right? - like, no, there were literally moments watching the movie where I was like, she sounds like so many people. Like, if I wasn't at a press screening knowing that I had to be aware of who was in the movie, she literally just sounds like other people. Like, it just - it doesn't bring much, and it doesn't feel like a bad performance on her part, it just feels like, yeah, like, stunt casting or something, since it didn't bring anything in particular. I agree, Jack Black is just - Jack Black is like MSG. You can just add a little Jack Black and I'm never going to be mad about it. It's always going to make things better. Like, I want more Jack Black in my life.

I did like Charlie Day as Luigi. But, yeah, otherwise - I mean, I really found Mario distracting, and not, oh, because it's just Chris Pratt distracting. Like, there was that aspect, which makes me think of "The Lego Movie." There's even a music cue later where I'm like, now you just got me thinking about "Guardians Of The Galaxy." This is weird. But, like, I really found Chris Pratt's voice noticeable. I think I just really didn't like Mario much in the movie, which is such a weird feeling.

YOUNG: I think - I like Bowser. I will say, they gave Bowser more to do in terms of, like, Jack Black-ing it up. As soon as you see him seated at a piano, you're like, well, I know where this is going, and I love it. And I...


YOUNG: ...Was here for it, and I appreciate that. I think we should have a little justice for Toad, played by Keegan-Michael Key, which - there was a few pops of brilliance out of Toad, especially early in the movie, in the ways that he was interacting with Mario as it begun. Later on, he kind of gets lost in the rest of the film, and by that time, Donkey Kong has showed up, and Seth Rogen literally just put his sweats on and just talked into a mic. He didn't (laughter) - he added nothing in addition to this movie in terms of skill. And he...


YOUNG: ...Was quoted as saying, I don't do voices, which, for me, says, then why are you Donkey Kong? Like, get someone that's going to have a lot of...


YOUNG: ...Fun doing this. And the thing that gets me - there's a lot of notable voice actors out...


YOUNG: ...There, like, you know, where was Phil LaMarr?


YOUNG: There's people around here that would have jumped at the opportunity to be in this movie. And I think, to Amil's point, like, you're right, we don't need celebrities, but you do - it would have been nice to have experts.


THOMPSON: I mean, in a way, I want to defend the cast a little bit because I've really enjoyed - virtually every member of this cast, I have enjoyed in the voice casts of other movies. I think Pratt - whatever you want to say about Pratt - I think Pratt's great in "The Lego Movie."



THOMPSON: He brings a weirdness. He brings personality. He brings kind of an aw, shucks, gee whiz charm to that movie that he is not given any space to bring to this movie, at all. Seth Rogen is in a million animated movies. He's always doing the voice of Seth Rogen. You know, he's in the "Kung Fu Panda" movies. He's in everything. And he's fine. It's like, oh, this is the role they put Seth Rogen in. It's a shaggy whatever. But, like, they didn't give him lines. They didn't give...


THOMPSON: ...Him jokes. You know, and Jack Black comes in, and you guys have alluded to the fact that Jack Black comes in and brings this Jack Black energy. It was interesting sort of reading about the fact that he does these songs. You know, they put him behind the piano. They have him sing several times. They understand. They have Jack Black, have him sing a goofy song. All of a sudden, the movie springs to a little bit of life...

ROSARIO: Yes it does.

THOMPSON: ...Because somebody with comedic timing has come in...


THOMPSON: ...And injected some of themselves into their part. And so Pratt, to me, is just a nonentity in this movie. I didn't even - I wasn't even that distracted by the Chris Pratt-iness of it all because the character wasn't really given anything to say.

ROSARIO: Like I said, I'm super, like, emotionally overinvested, but I think, yeah, I mean, some of my frustration also does come from the fact that I've just seen Nintendo be so great at this world building.

NIAZI: What they did, and what they perhaps felt they had to do is hit those beats that we were all expecting and all wanting, get those Easter eggs out of the way and then prepare for the universe of Mario that's to come. And I really do think that this is the first of many because it did not necessarily fulfill everything that we wanted. And they've got to give us Yoshi, and they've got to get into all the other worlds.

So I anticipate spending the next decade watching Mario movies with myself and with my kids. And I really think that what they were doing was just building the foundation for that universe. And perhaps I'm going to reserve judgment for what comes next and hope that they take all of our criticism and make the next one better, 'cause it's very possible. There's lots to build from. But I do think that they sort of just felt they had to lay these bricks down for the next one.

YOUNG: Well, two things. One, I don't think it matters how good it was or not because I think it's a hit. And when I say that, I mean, like, I think we're all going to have the discussions about, you know, plot, whether it's thin or not, character development, all of that. But the truth is, you know, when I left, I definitely felt all the references, but I also felt like the plot was thin. But I also don't have kids. I'm not a part of a family, and I'm also not a young person, really, anymore. And I think that there's going to be a lot of enthusiasm for kids for this movie and for parents taking their kids. And this movie sets up for a sequel with the after-the-credits scene.

And I think, like, because they're keen to continue building out the world, and we know that franchise and IP is king right now, I expect to see hundreds of these films - you know what I mean? - because this is the first time in which the video game universe is already built out - you know what I mean? - so it's not hard to make companion to say, hey, you already have a Switch. Why don't you put your Switch down and come in the theater, watch some more Mario and then go pick up your Switch and buy some new Mario that we just made, you know what I mean? So, like, the money grab is there for them to make a - hundreds - make...

THOMPSON: (Impersonating Mario) Make a-hundreds.

YOUNG: (Impersonating Mario) Make a-hundreds...

ROSARIO: (Laughter).

YOUNG: ...Of these (laughter). But, like, I don't think that necessarily is going to be the standard on whether or not it's good. But, I mean, that being said, you saw what happened when they first made Sonic, and the outcry of how horribly they animated Sonic made them change Sonic. So we do know that some public criticism will change a movie for good or for bad, whatever that means. So it remains to be seen what impact criticism will have on the rest of the Nintendo Cinematic Universe.

ROSARIO: One thing I just have always appreciated is the way that Nintendo - not just Mario, but Nintendo - has focused on, like, family and bringing people together. And so I think in that sense, for me, it just felt like kids are smart. Treat them with respect. Give them a real story. Because other companies have been able to do it, so there's no reason to say that, like, you guys really can't.

THOMPSON: Yeah. All right. Well, we want to know what you think about "The Super Mario Bros. Movie." Find us at facebook.com/pchh. Up next, what is making us happy this week.

Now it's time for our favorite segment of this week and every week, what is making us happy this week. Amil Niazi, what is making you happy this week?

NIAZI: Oh, my gosh. OK. Well, thanks for starting with me 'cause I'm about to bring a real corniness factor into this conversation. But it is just what made me happy this week. When I'm trying to watch a movie, really, these days, it's like my brain has to be completely shut off all the way. And so I turn to Netflix's "Murder Mystery 2," starring Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston. And I have to say, I enjoyed the first one. I enjoyed the second one. Took me exactly to where I wanted to go, which was just, like, smoothbrainville (ph). You know, the jokes were there. Talking about the script - like, the jokes were there. I really enjoy Jennifer Aniston kind of out of the usual milieu that she's in. And Adam Sandler, when he is bringing it, he's - he really is one of the greats. And so I know it's, like, the most boomery (ph) choice I could make, but "Murder Mystery 2." Guys, if you just want to, like, check out, have a few laughs, eat dinner on the couch...

THOMPSON: I want to do all those things.

NIAZI: ...Do it with "Murder Mystery 2." You will - honestly, you will not complain afterwards.

THOMPSON: Great. "Murder Mystery 2." Where's it streaming?

NIAZI: Netflix.

THOMPSON: Awesome. Ronald Young Jr., what is making you happy this week?

YOUNG: Just shout-out to Amil. I really liked the first one, so I'm very excited to hear this endorsement on the sequel. So you're not by yourself.

NIAZI: Thank you, Ronald.

YOUNG: So my what's making me happy this week is a book by Julie Murphy called "If The Shoe Fits." It is a novel that came out - I believe it came out in 2021, but I bought it, and I never got around to reading it. I am one of those millennials that likes to buy books to have them but not necessarily to read them. And then this one was at the top of the list. And it's a modern take on the fairy tale "Cinderella." But at the center of the story is Cindy, a plus-sized woman who is sent to be on a "Bachelor"-style romance show where she meets her Prince Charming and kind of goes through the phases of trying to win him. It's a romance story. I haven't finished it yet. I'm only about halfway, 75% through the book, but I've really been enjoying it. I think it's a great depiction of, you know, navigating life in a fatphobic world. And I really like that they're centering this woman at the center of this specific story. But it's also fun. As someone who watches "The Bachelor," except for this season - I did not like their choices for the Bachelor, I just want to...

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

YOUNG: ...Say that onto the record. But except for this season...

ROSARIO: (Laugher).

NIAZI: Yes, preach. Preach it.

YOUNG: But, like, as someone who enjoys that show, I really loved reading this book and kind of, like, seeing them go behind the scenes and talk about producing and all of that, as well as tell a pretty cute romance story. And again, that's "If The Shoe Fits" by Julie Murphy.

THOMPSON: Wonderful. Thank you, Ronald Young Jr. Daisy Rosario, what's making you happy this week?

ROSARIO: I've got two books that are making me happy. One is out now. It's actually the book "Dear Prudence," written by Daniel Lavery, who's the previous "Dear Prudence." So I work at Slate. We have "Dear Prudence," its advice column. This book is a collection of, you know, letters and answers, and I really like reading them back-to-back. I honestly do. And then the other recommendation is the second book by somebody who has made me happy in the past. This is a comedian, writer, super-talented human-of-all-trades, Lane Moore. And this book is called "You Will Find Your People." And it's all about how to make adult friendships.

I literally keep reaching for this book because as I keep reading more and more advice columns, I just see how consistently, like, asking about making friends as an adult comes up. Lane is so smart and has written, like, a really great book about it. So the two are the "Dear Prudence" book by Daniel M. Lavery and the upcoming book, out on April 25, Lane Moore's "You Will Find Your People."

THOMPSON: Wonderful. What is making me happy is another - you know, we've talked about the Nintendo Cinematic Universe. We talk about a lot of different cinematic universes on this show. What is making me happy is the Boygenius Cinematic Universe.

ROSARIO: Oh, yeah.

THOMPSON: The fantastic supergroup, Boygenius, put out a great record last week called "The Record." I love it dearly. My favorite song so far is one of the singles, "Not Strong Enough," which - one of the most quotable songs of the year. I love it so much. Let's hear a little bit of it.


BOYGENIUS: (Singing) Always an angel, never a God. Always an angel, never a God. I don't know why I am the way I am. There's...

THOMPSON: I love this record, and I love the fact that there is a cinematic component to the Boygenius Cinematic Universe in the form of a short film directed by Kristen Stewart to create gay Voltron.

ROSARIO: It's true.

THOMPSON: There is a 14-minute Boygenius movie which you can stream on the internet right now. I love just being able to dive into a whole bunch of great new music by people who've really never made music I don't love. So that is Boygenius and the Boygenius short film directed by Kristen Stewart. That is what is making me happy this week. If you want links for what we recommended plus some more recommendations, sign up for our newsletter at npr.org/popculturenewsletter. That brings us to the end of our show.

Daisy Rosario, Ronald Young Jr., Amil Niazi, thanks so much for being here.

ROSARIO: Thank you.

NIAZI: Thank you.

YOUNG: Thanks for having me.

THOMPSON: This episode was produced by Hafsa Fathima and edited by Mike Katzif. Our supervising producer is Jessica Reedy, and Hello Come In provides our theme music. Thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. I'm Stephen Thompson, and we will see you all next week.


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