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Voicing Mario in a movie is an impossible task

Reinventing Mario for film is necessary, because he’s never really been a character

Mario holds his hand to his chest and looks doubtful among many huge mushrooms in The Super Mario Bros. Movie Image: Universal Pictures

Before we rush to criticize Chris Pratt for giving Mario what sounds like his regular speaking voice — or The Super Mario Bros. Movie’s producers for employing him — we should stop and think: What would we have done? Do we really want to listen to a whole film of Charles Martinet going “woohoo” in falsetto and putting on a cartoonishly thick Italian accent? Of course not. But what would we replace it with?

The actor, and the producers, are in a tough spot. Mario is an icon, one of the most recognizable characters of all time. He is the reason the movie is getting made. But he is also its biggest problem, because he’s a cipher. Apart from being Italian and, supposedly, a plumber, he has few character traits. He rarely has what you would call dialogue. Most of his games barely have storylines. He’s a bit of a daredevil, I guess? He always seems to be enjoying himself? He jumps a lot? Before he was called Mario, his name was Jumpman, and that says a lot. It was always going to be necessary to reinvent Mario for him to carry a movie.

This is not to denigrate Shigeru Miyamoto’s creation. The artist, trying to come up with a character who would animate vividly within a tiny grid of pixels in the original Donkey Kong arcade game, came up with something indelible: the red and the blue, the overalls so you could see his arms swing, the hat, the big nose, the mustache. There’s more than just necessity being the mother of invention here, too, as Miyamoto’s playfulness and gentle, impish subversion come into play. His hero looks like anything but: a cute but dumpy little everyman, defiantly unhip, and coded simultaneously as a toddler and a particularly boring species of adult.

Most of all, though, Mario is fun to play with. This is not a Solid Snake or Bayonetta situation — nobody wants to be Mario (I certainly don’t buy that Chris Pratt did). Instead, Mario exists to be controlled. From the NES Super Mario Bros. onward, this funny little character is transformed in motion into a ballet dancer, athlete, and clown of superhuman agility and grace. His leaps describe impossible arcs; he somersaults, skids, bounces, and bellyflops.

When Miyamoto’s team was prototyping Mario 64, the character’s first game in 3D, they started with Mario represented by a featureless cube, and didn’t start animating him until the cube was inherently fun to control on its own. The character only comes alive, only makes sense, in your hands. The link between player and Mario is powerfully deep, but it’s deliberately not total: His careening momentum has just a hint of chaos to it, a sense that he could slip beyond the edge of your control at any moment. That’s what gives Mario a life of his own — and it’s nothing you can put in a movie script.

This might be why Mario has never really succeeded in narrative art (unless you count some of his more story-minded video games, like the wonderful Mario & Luigi series). Since a run of fairly anodyne cartoons in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and the infamous misfire of the 1993 Bob Hoskins-starring Super Mario Bros. film, making stories about Mario has rarely been attempted. For a character of his enormous fame, a 30-year dry spell of crossover media is surely unprecedented.

There’s a telling comparison to be made with Mario’s old rival, Sonic the Hedgehog. In his first game appearances, Sonic is barely any more fleshed out: If Mario jumps far, then Sonic runs fast; neither is much more than a color scheme and a move set. But Sonic has the cool sneakers and the attitude, the way he crosses his arms and looks out of the screen at you, tapping his foot impatiently. This tiny, provocative little sliver of personality was just enough to serve as the seed for a deluge of comics and animation, fan fiction and lore, and ultimately, a successful film franchise. It wasn’t much, but it was enough. Mario has never been able to muster the same.

For The Super Mario Bros. Movie to work, Nintendo, animation studio Illumination, and Pratt need to find a way to fill this void without jarring with the things about Mario that we feel we do know, and that we’ve been clinging to for decades. It’s an incredibly difficult task, and it’s about much more than a voice, or an accent, although it has to start there. As if that weren’t enough, the Mario of this film will somehow need to ground the audience in the intensely surreal, nonsensical world of the Mushroom Kingdom (which would explain why, in the trailer, he appears to be a surprised visitor there, rather than an inhabitant).

As wrong as Pratt continues to feel in the role, you can begin to understand why the producers might turn to the man who voiced Emmet, the irrepressible everyman hero of the Lego movies, to anchor it. That the first footage featured so little of Pratt’s performance and Mario’s dialogue could be a worrying sign — or it could just be that Illumination and Nintendo feel the need to introduce us to their necessary reinvention of the character gently.

As the trailer, and the wonderfully evocative poster, prove, there are a dozen other reasons to make the Mario movie, and to look forward to watching it: a riotous world, a colorful supporting cast, and an immortal iconography that promises to look delicious at this kind of scale. Maybe it doesn’t matter so much if Mario himself is the one element that ends up lost in translation. It wouldn’t be the first time.

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