Plumbing the depths of gaming nostalgia in a candy-colored CG landscape, The Super Mario Bros. Movie is joyously sprinting toward a spring theatrical release courtesy of Despicable Me studio Illumination, Nintendo and Universal Pictures. Just like the iconic Mario Brothers franchise that first arrived in 1983 as an arcade spinoff of Donkey Kong, this adventurous adaptation finds the two Brooklyn-based Italian plumbers exploring subterranean destinations across the magical Mushroom Kingdom to rescue an abducted princess and ultimately save the world.
The PG-rated, CG-animated movie is directed by Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic (Teen Titans Go!, Teen Titans GO! To the Movies) from a screenplay by Matthew Fogel (Minions: The Rise of Gru). Tagging along for the wild ride alongside Mario, Luigi and Princess Peach are the barrel-obliterating Donkey Kong and the ferocious koopa king, Bowser. The vocal cast is led by Chris Pratt as Mario, with Charlie Day as Luigi and Anya Taylor-Joy as Princess Peach. Rounding out the performers are Seth Rogen as Donkey Kong, Jack Black as Bowser, Keegan-Michael Key playing Toad, Fred Armisen as Cranky Kong, Sebastian Maniscalco as Foreman Spike and Kevin Michael Richardson voicing Kamek.
We connected with Horvath and Jelenic for some early insights into the making of this new expedition to the Mushroom Kingdom to learn the recipe for concocting a rambunctious movie to please 40 years of video game fans across the entire Super Mario media empire. Here is what they told us:
Animation Magazine: What attracted you to this fun project and what was the core story you wished to tell?
Aaron Horvath: We’re both big fans and grew up with Super Mario. It was a huge part of our childhood. I have kids and we’ve played Mario games together so the opportunity to make a movie featuring all my favorite characters was pretty insane. And it was exciting for us to tell a story about how Mario became Super Mario. I got to make the movie that I always wanted to see when I was a kid. There hadn’t been a Super Mario movie that satisfied the fan in me. I feel like this has all been a prank, but apparently it’s real and really happening.
Michael Jelenic: I was really interested in the project because growing up there are a few touchpoints in pop culture that captured my imagination. I wasn’t really a Star Wars guy, but I was a Super Mario kid. That was right in my formative childhood years. I had a lot of backstory in my mind and I thought it would be a fun challenge taking the emotions of playing the video game and translating that into a narrative story. And then working with legendary companies like Nintendo and Illumination made it such an exciting opportunity for us.
How did your work on Teen Titans Go! help prepare you for the Super Mario world?
Horvath: With Teen Titans we were tasked with making a show that was very irreverent and funny and really broad for a new audience. We were able to do that because there was already a reverent series delivered for a lot of people. But there had never been a really authentic Super Mario movie or TV show that was satisfying. So, in a way it was the opposite of what we did on Teen Titans: Let’s deliver the Mario experience that we haven’t had yet.
Jelenic: I’ve spent most of my career working on pre-existing characters and have gone from being faithful to completely irreverent. When people probably first heard our names attached to the movie, they expected we’d do the Teen Titans Go! treatment to Mario. But every project we come to, we make new choices depending on who the audience is and what we’re going for.
At the end of the day, we were trying to do something cinematic and that requires a different tone than maybe you’d do for a 52-week series. All our choices were about, how do we make this feel bigger and more emotional? Movie tickets are expensive, and we wanted this to be a memorable experience. It takes a lot more to get somebody into a movie theater seat. This is sort of the opposite treatment of Teen Titans Go!, so I hope we’re surprising people.
Can you delve into the animation’s design aesthetics and the studio team that delivered it?
Horvath: The animation team is Illumination Paris and they’re based in Paris. They’re world class talent and I was so excited to get to work with these guys. It’s my favorite characters in the world and my favorite feature animation studio in the world — it’s such an amazing combination. Everybody there, the artists, the producers, the designers, everybody is a huge fan of Super Mario and just wanted to deliver the ultimate Mario experience.
The look of the animation we were going for is cartoony and semi-realistic. There are moments of cartoony fun, but it’s probably more of an action movie. We wanted it to feel like a big adventure film and that there are stakes and maybe you believe that these characters can die, so they’re not super-squashy and super-stretchy, and we used consistent volume on the characters to make them feel a little more grounded than you might see in some other animated films.
What was it like working with Chris Pratt, Charlie Day, Seth Rogen, Jack Black, and the rest of your high-wattage vocal cast?
Jelenic: Sometimes in the animation community people think that you can’t use celebrities, but I think it’s easy to forget that these are great performers and they’ve all proven themselves multiple times and created iconic characters. We cast them in the parts because we believed they could bring these video game characters, who really don’t have much of a personality, to life and make them relatable and funny and heroic. Literally every single person in this movie is great.
Chris Pratt is great at playing an everyman who’s funny, but that you also buy as a hero. Charlie Day is the perfect embodiment of what you think of as Luigi. And then you have Jack Black playing Bowser — and we decided to make that character scary, but the other side of Bowser is somebody who’s vulnerable and funny, and Jack is able to play both those parts and make it not seem like two different characters. It’s sort of humbling working with this talent. From the French studio to the vocal cast, every single person has excelled in this movie.
Beyond its timeless retro appeal, why do you think the Super Mario franchise endures through generations?
Horvath: I think it endures because [Shigeru] Miyamoto [Nintendo game designer, producer and director] and the team at Nintendo can’t just rely on that retro appeal and thinking that everybody loves Mario. They never stop innovating. There’s always something new to discover, there’s always a new core idea to the game that makes it fun to play.
You get to have this avatar that you’re connected to from your childhood, but he’s always going on a new adventure in a new world with new abilities and characters to meet and ways to interact. We’re hoping that’s the vibe of the movie, too. It’s characters you’ve known and loved for decades and hopefully they’re being presented here in a way that’s new and fresh. That endless striving for creativity and innovation and entertainment is what really keeps it alive.
Jelenic: For people in our age group who played the original game, there is that retro quality. But the game never stopped. Some people might have stopped playing, but these characters are not retro for Aaron’s and my kids. There’s something iconic about this character. He’s not Pac-Man and didn’t stop being relevant in the ‘80s. Mario never gives up. And it’s always been a video game that’s accessible; You don’t have to be a gamer to pick up a Mario game. You can be a four-year old or a 70-year old, and families can play it. That’s the same approach we took for this film. These are simply timeless characters: Mario is like Mickey Mouse!
Universal/Illumination’s The Super Mario Bros. Movie jumps into theaters on April 5.