There are many old SpongeBob gags I love, but one of the greatest — especially from the show’s rare live-action segments — is when SpongeBob superfan Patchy the Pirate eagerly puts on a video of what he believes to be a lost episode of the show, only to discover that it’s, as he bitterly exclaims, “just a bunch of cheap walk cycles!” It’s become a minor meme in recent years (as is the fate of all good SpongebBob gags), but it really does sum of the feeling of breathless anticipation followed by… something that’s just kind of there.
We’ve had over a year of that same anticipation waiting for the Super Mario Bros. movie debut after the casting announcement in September 2021. Apprehension and curiosity was on everyone’s mind counting down to the teaser trailer reveal — which would happen in a big, flashy Nintendo Direct, no less. And that trailer, after all that waiting, was… fine. Some bright spots, some dark ones, but overall neither spectacular success nor explosive failure.
The lead in to the trailer was arguably as distinctive for predicting the substance of the actual trailer. Shigeru Miyamoto and producer Chris Meledandri spoke mostly in basic, business-like aphorisms, though Meledandri at least cites some of the hardworking staff and their efforts. They then throw the mic over to Chris Pratt and Jack Black — whose wildly different levels of charisma are a bit telling. Pratt speaks like he’s remembering lines at a job interview, stiltedly moving from one thought to another. Assuming his memories of playing Nintendo games as a youth are genuine and not something read off of a cue card, he has a very difficult time emotionally conveying it as truth. Black, meanwhile, is so natural and affable with his speaking that you can’t help but be enamored with how much fun he’s having. From a crystal clear enunciation of “Miyamoto-san” to namedropping Gene Simmons of Kiss, he’s about ten times as magnetic in interview form alone.
Perhaps it’s not a surprise then that the teaser focuses much more on Black’s Bowser than Pratt’s Mario, showcasing a presumably early scene where Bowser’s forces attack some poor penguins. Black’s casting as Bowser was one of the few people seemed genuinely happy with last year, and his performance exceeds expectations: menacing, commanding, distinctive, and not something that just makes you go “hey, that’s Jack Black” (more on that in a minute). It totally makes sense that they’d want to spotlight him first and foremost, because if there’s anything about the trailer that’s unabashedly a good thing, it’s him.
The visuals are also quite good, but they dangle on a precipice over the yawning maw of a deep uncanny valley. Mario has always tended towards a cartoony artstyle, and the trailer mostly nails a blend of that with more realistic textures and lighting — especially in the scene that takes up the bulk of the runtime, with all of the Koopas and penguins looking pretty much perfect. Not to mention the character animation (again, for Bowser specifically) is wonderfully expressive. In the Mushroomy part of the trailer, however, it doesn’t mesh quite as well, though that may just because Mario having slightly different proportions for the first time in decades is jarring. The visuals may lean into uncanniness at times in the final product, but at the moment things look promising.
Of course, people weren’t waiting on the look of the movie. They were waiting on a voice. They were waiting for Chris Pratt to put on the most blatant, cartoonish, I cook-a da pizza-level Italian accent possible. Whether it would’ve worked or just been a caricature, it would have been memorable. Instead, Mario sounds like… Chris Pratt. Which is just so, so boring. You can hear juuuust a little bit of inflection to make him sound a bit like Lou Albano from the Super Mario Bros. Super Show, but it’s not nearly enough to make you have any reaction that’s not “hey, that’s just Chris Pratt.” Though he also didn’t get enough speaking lines to honestly tell otherwise.
The generic Hollywood trailer remix of the classic Mario theme I view as a personal affront to good taste, but the stinger — showing Charlie Day’s Luigi running from Dry Bones and other ghoulies — is a nice bit of frosting at least. Ultimately, while certain aspects of the trailer are promising, there’s too little meat on the bone for us to tell much of the plot — though the fact that Mario exits a pipe and goes “Where am I” has at least a couple people I know fearing that he got isekai’d into the Mushroom Kingdom. That sure would be something. Though Jack Black also hints at Bowser having a musical number, so this movie might end up a masterpiece after all. Whatever the case, the teaser was too little to make much fuss about, beyond the sounds of the voices that we’ve been anticipating for months.
Better than a bunch of cheap walk cycles, at least.
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