Films or TV shows based on games don’t have to be terrible – as proved in various ways by Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves and The Last of Us. Even The Angry Birds Movie wasn’t too bad. The trick is usually to make it look as if the game was based on the movie, rather than the other way round. But this much-trailed, much-hyped new animated feature is tedious and flat in all senses, a disappointment to match the live-action version in 1993. It’s visually bland in ways that reminded me of European knockoff animations and utterly inert in narrative terms, with a baffling lack of properly funny lines.
It is of course based on the global video game phenomenon, born in the 80s, from Kyoto-based gaming giant Nintendo, with its wackily eccentric idea of Italian-American plumbers Mario and Luigi. They are called the Super Mario Bros, even though “Mario” is not their surname – like Dostoevsky inventing a videogame called The Brothers Dimitri. This movie revives the ancient and surreal quest undertaken by Mario (voiced by Chris Pratt) and his brother Luigi (Charlie Day), Brooklyn plumbers who only do the silly and borderline-offensive cod Italian voice for their cheesy TV ad.
They find themselves transported into an undreamt-of Oz-type otherworld through the New York sewers; in the Mushroom Kingdom Mario must gallantly rescue Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy) from the evil fire-breathing turtle Bowser (Jack Black), who has captured Luigi and intends to make Peach his bride. The Princess and Mario have to enlist the help of Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen) and the Kong army.
At first there are some zany and ingenious panning-right 2D-obstacle sequences pastiching the gameplay action, as if by accident, but once the brothers have left planet Earth, the game dimension has to be repeatedly, cumbersomely and boringly crowbarred into the story itself. And unlike the brilliant Lego Movies, there is a fierce insistence on not being ironic or funny or self-referential about any of this – odd, as screenwriter Matthew Fogel worked on The Lego Movie 2. The only exception, arguably, is when Bowser is seen thoughtfully playing power-ballads on his piano. Even Super Mario superfans might prefer the game.
• The Super Mario Bros Movie is released on 5 April in Australia and the US, and on 7 April in the UK.