Movie Review

Where’s Mario in the 2023 Mario Bros. Movie?

By Christen Crumpler

No, the iconic video game character is not actually missing from the film. However, the personality that’s associated with him musically seems to be scarce. 

I’m an avid gamer who has played some titles from the Mario franchise,  and is familiar with the kind of music in different Mario games. And I’ve noted that the soundtrack for the Super Mario Bros. movie does not characteristically sound like Mario. 

What’s the Mario Aesthetic

The soundtrack is credited to Brian Tyler–not Koji Kondo, who I was expecting. For those who don’t know, Koji Kondo is the composer with Nintendo who’s famously known for creating the iconic themes and tunes to the games Super Mario and Legend of Zelda. The Mario games’ sound is a reflection of the creative and musical decisions of Kondo.

Not being familiar with Brian Tyler, I looked at what other projects he’s composed for. Understanding Tyler’s sound helps to identify the character he adds to music.

Tyler’s work includes games like Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed—even composing for some of the Marvel movies! These examples naturally lend themselves to a style of action music that is more suspenseful and serious, using a large orchestra to sound cinematic. While it is an appropriate style for the projects mentioned above, it’s very different from Kondo’s musical style in the Mario games.

Kirsten Carey’s article at The Mary Sue shares similar thoughts about the musical qualities of the Mario games. The games’ soundtracks have a distinctive “childlike playfulness” to them.  There’s still complexity and lively motion in the music while being simple, even with the limitations of early game consoles. The music is able to meet a diverse audience where they are without compromising the substance of its message.

These characteristics are present across the different Mario games’ soundtracks, establishing a cohesive musical concept for the game’s world. However, when hearing the movie’s take on Mario, these elements appear left behind. The soundtrack for the new Mario movie has a standard box-office movie score with a hint of what’s connected to the Mario game soundtracks–thanks to the formulas used to create film music. 

Movie vs. Gaming Experience

Super Mario
Super Mario/MovieStillsDB

Think about any movie you’ve watched in the past five years. It probably  included ambient sounds and effects, with musical writing that easily conveys a basic emotion. These are examples of cues in film music that get you to recognize what’s happening in the movie. 

Since many films continue to use these musical cues, it over-saturates the genre and becomes predictable. This makes it extremely easy to distinguish it from the musical character that comes with Mario.

For example, the movie frequently uses recognizable and overused songs like “Holding Out For A Hero” by Bonnie Tyler or “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” by Beastie Boys to describe the moments happening on-screen. With such a creative and imaginative intellectual property as Mario, the music team should have seized the opportunity to find a new musical way to demonstrate what’s happening—using an unique unpredictable melody and sound.

The movie also misses opportunities to bridge the experience players have while playing Mario to an on-screen format. To give you an idea, the concept of dynamic music is used throughout different Mario games and has existing themes to go along with that experience.

Dynamic music in video games is music that adapts to and is affected by the events in your gameplay.

It’s the concept of the music and atmosphere changing when Mario goes in and out of water, or when Mario Kart 8 changes its sounds and effects based on your environment. Yet, the movie went with film cues like using popular songs outside of the Mario franchise to describe what is happening—rather than available Mario themes that those who play Mario games would recognize.

The movie uses montages—which poses the question: “What would be the music for a montage sequence in a video game?” And that’s the thing; there typically aren’t any. That time a movie montage or timelapse skips would be spent with actual gameplay in a video game. Understandably, the medium of a movie can’t fully capture the journey experienced through gameplay. Maybe it would be more beneficial for the Mario movie team to show the characters going from point A then immediately to point B.

Video games don’t generally timelapse or montage you through areas. They expect you to make that trek yourself. So when you talk about the purpose of music in video games, these scores and iconic themes add grandeur and keep the excitement through your gameplay. As a player, if you are spending a lot of time doing a repetitive activity or task that brings you across the same locations with their specific themes several times, you’d want it to be a good, memorable theme that doesn’t turn into an annoying tune.

When recognizable themes and tunes are added to the movie, they are incorporated through medleys. Though, they bring these themes in so quickly—one after another—that it’s extremely jarring. The experience leaves you confused, wondering what was the narrative purpose for bringing in certain Mario themes. It certainly feels like they wait until the end to cram in all of those musical references, which is a lot pushed onto the viewer.

A Take on Adaptations

All of these decisions left me, as a viewer, feeling that the team for this movie was afraid to take risks. Afraid to bet on the elements of Mario that have already made it an acclaimed video game franchise. From a film viewpoint, the artistic decisions for this movie felt very safe and within a realm of familiarity, which made the movie an average Illumination Studios animation that happened to look like Mario.

It’s okay to try something new or take a new direction when making art based on something. It’s acceptable to encourage that idea because that’s part of the nature and cycle of creativity. But—for movie adaptations—it does not benefit anyone when you apply cinematic  formulas to the reputation a franchise has already built for itself. Ultimately, what’s important is that what you make pays proper homage and respect to the source material—while also achieving authenticity.