Last September, during a routine Nintendo Direct, Mario series creator Shigeru Miyamoto made an appearance. The storied developer wasn’t there to talk about video games, though. He was there with an update on the upcoming Super Mario Bros movie, the franchise’s first foray into motion pictures since the disastrous early-90s Bob Hoskins-led Mario outing.
The upcoming film, a collaboration between Nintendo and animation studio Illumination, has some enormous expectations on its shoulders. Mario is an internationally recognized mascot, the face of one of the biggest game companies in the world, and the main character of some of the best-selling games ever made.
He’s also never really been a character. He’s a player avatar, a bunch of verbs given a digital form.
That makes the task of voicing him in a movie somewhat daunting. Many fans assumed that his longtime game voice actor, Charles Martinet, would just provide the voice for the character he’s helped define since the early 90s. Instead, when Miyamoto unveiled the film’s cast last September, an unlikely actor was announced in the title role: Chris Pratt. The Parks and Rec and Guardians of the Galaxy star isn’t exactly renowned for his voice acting, but some fans took the news as an insult to Martinet.
Why Are People Mad?
Chris Pratt, despite helming multiple successful franchises, is not universally beloved. Some people take issue with his perceived personal views, while others argue that he’s a bland and uninspiring actor.
On the other hand, some fans love Chris Pratt. Many find his comedic acting to be hilarious, like his roles in the sitcom Parks and Rec and the humorous action film Guardians of the Galaxy. He’s also had voice roles in other animated films: he plays the protagonist in both The Lego Movie and Disney’s excellent Onward. While he’s not a prolific voice actor, he’s far from unproven.
So, why are people really mad? Well, it’s likely got a lot to do with a lack of continuity. Some fans feel like Pratt’s casting represents change for the sake of change. Martinet’s voice is iconic, and he’s provided the character’s lines since the early 90s. Why not just use him, fans ask? Well, it’s a bit more complicated than just casting the fan-favorite actor due to star power.
Charles Martinet is a beloved voice actor who has portrayed numerous characters over the year, not just Mario. He’s been a dragon in Skyrim, Orvis in Ratchet and Clank, and Magenta in Dragon Ball. He’s a talented voice actor who can do more than just yell “wahoo!” in his falsetto. That was the argument many fans on social media made.
But here’s the thing: Martinet wasn’t going to use that voice even had he been cast in the title role. It’s simply not versatile enough to carry an entire movie’s worth of dialogue. He would have almost certainly changed things up and given the character a different speaking voice. And if Martinet isn’t providing that iconic voice, why would Nintendo cast him in the role? If Mario is already going to sound different, why not redefine his sound for the massive film that will mark the character’s return to the big screen after 30 years?
Enter Chris Pratt, a talented actor with a recognizable speaking voice and great comedic timing. Nintendo clearly wanted A-list talent on the roster for this film: Jack Black is voicing Bowser, Seth Rogen will be Donkey Kong, and Anya Taylor-Joy is Princess Peach. This is some megaton power, but it’s not just star power for its own sake. This thing needs to be absolutely huge.
Reinventing the Character
Mario has never really worked as a character in a narrative sense. His games (mostly) have paper-thin stories, and his only outings in crossover media have been the underwhelming 80s cartoon and the aforementioned 90s film, neither of which made the character feel like much more than a goofy stock character, a caricature Italian plumber. In the few games where he’s been the protagonist in an ongoing story, like Paper Mario, he’s been mostly silent.
In a movie, Mario needs to have agency–and, if I’m being honest, a personality that goes beyond a stereotype. Just being a cheerful guy who shouts “wahoo” while jumping through the air is great when the audience is in direct control of his actions, but it’s not great for a passive viewing experience. Martinet could have likely given the character a new voice and made him a likable leading man, but how would that have been different from casting another actor to reinvent the character?
Chris Pratt’s voice can be briefly heard in the recently-released trailer for Super Mario Bros, and he sounds… fine. He’s doing a slight Brooklyn accent, and he’s raised his pitch slightly. It’s clear that he’s going to have his own spin on this iconic character, bringing a bit more gravel to his lines than what we might have expected from a classic Martinet take on Mario.
From Another World
One element in the trailer that surprised some younger Mario fans was that he appears to fall into the Mushroom Kingdom from somewhere else. Despite the perception that Mario is a native of the fantastical world his adventures take place in, the early games in the Super Mario franchise made it clear that Mario is a New Yorker. He was born in the real world and only fell into the Mushroom Kingdom after becoming an adult.
Nintendo retconned this backstory with the Super Nintendo Yoshi’s Island games, in which Yoshi protects a baby Mario during a platforming adventure. But, again, storylines haven’t really been the Mario series’ strong suit outside of a few RPGs. Those inconsistencies aside, Mario has always been presented as a visitor to the Mushroom Kingdom. He’s the obvious outsider; he and his brother are the only humans in sight aside from the princess, for one thing.
Following Mario into the Mushroom Kingdom from the “real” world will also give the film a classic “hero’s journey” structure. Mario dropping into an unfamiliar place and saving it from the villainous Bowser is classic storytelling at its best.
Voice Talent Impresses
The most impressive thing in the trailer, aside from the stunning visuals, was Jack Black’s smoldering Bowser. The imposing King of all Koopas hasn’t been voiced beyond growls and snarls since the 2002 game Super Mario Sunshine. This film marks the first time he’s been animated with an expressive face, too, and Illumination has clearly based his expressions on Jack Black himself.
The veteran comedic actor sounds stellar in the role. He exudes menace, using his booming voice to sell Bowser’s arrogant swagger. It’ll be delightful to hear him facing off against Pratt later in the film. Likewise, the other prominent voice heard in the trailer is Keegan-Michael Key as Toad. His voice has been modulated and pitched up to match the iconic shrill voice the character has in the games.
Charlie Day’s Luigi is barely heard in the brief stinger at the end of the trailer. However, his casting was one of the most celebrated announcements when the cast was revealed, and fans are eager to hear the Always Sunny actor’s high-strung take on Luigi.
Will This Movie Flop Like the Last One?
With all of the discussion about voice acting and casting aside, the film looks absolutely stunning. Illumination, known for its Despicable Me franchise, is already recognized as one of the most accomplished non-Disney animation studios in the industry. It’s clearly outdone itself with Super Mario Bros, from the look of things. The trailer showcased far more than just some anticipated voiceover work.
The Mushroom Kingdom is full of iconic sights and unmistakable characters, and Illumination has brought them to life in stunning fashion. It looks like a supercharged version of a Mario game, complete with realistic textures on Mario’s overalls and a visible scale pattern on Bowser’s dragon-like skin. The numerous mushrooms of the fantasy realm are shiny and huge, and Peach’s castle looks spot-on.
Mario is already one of the world’s most recognizable mascots. He’s the face of the billion-dollar Nintendo franchise, and his games routinely move millions of units. If Illumination and Nintendo can pull this off, Mario will soon also be the face of a massive, lucrative film franchise that brings Nintendo’s lush, iconic worlds to the big screen for the first time in decades.