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Why does the cutest character in The Super Mario Bros. Movie want to die?

Consider the Luma: a bad role model, but a great joke

A blue Luma named Lumalee cheerfully stands in a small cage in The Super Mario Bros. Movie. Image: Nintendo, Illumination/Universal Pictures
Joshua Rivera (he/him) is an entertainment and culture journalist specializing in film, TV, and video game criticism, the latest stop in a decade-plus career as a critic.

One of the best running gags in The Super Mario Bros. Movie is also an extremely disconcerting one — and a pointed reference to a specific Mario game, like so much in the movie.

[Ed. note: Spoilers ahead for one recurring cameo/recurring joke in The Super Mario Bros. Movie.]

Deep in Bowser’s dungeon, there’s a little blue glowing star-shaped creature who cheerfully, vocally yearns for death, nothingness, and the void.

This little critter is a Luma, introduced in the Nintendo Wii game Super Mario Galaxy. Lumas are star-shaped creatures with the potential to be reborn as planets and other heavenly bodies. So, as Polygon’s own Michael McWhertor noted when the Luma first appeared in a trailer for The Super Mario Bros. Movie, this gag is 100% lore-accurate:

Luma’s references to “the sweet relief” of death are more than just comic relief, they’re accurate to the Luma species. At the end of Super Mario Galaxy, a cluster of Luma enthusiastically sacrifice themselves to save the galaxy by getting sucked into a black hole created by Bowser. These guys absolutely love dying!

The Luma is never named in the movie, but credited as “Lumalee,” and voiced by Juliet Jelenic, the daughter of co-director Michael Jelenic. Knowing that makes the gag even funnier, just like the fact that none of this backstory is referenced in the film. Lumalee is just there, in Bowser’s dungeon, with a cadre of other prisoners, spouting nihilistic bon mots. To the uninitiated, it’s a highly idiosyncratic joke. To Mario die-hards, it’s an extremely good deep cut.

But Lumalee’s non sequiturs about oblivion also serve to highlight just how safe the rest of The Super Mario Bros. Movie plays its gags. While the movie is eager to please, with references galore, it’s surprisingly light on jokes. Much of the action unfolds in a straight-faced way, with most of the laughs derived from pratfalls. In other words, a lot of its jokes could work in many other movie contexts, and few of them stem from these individual characters. (The only major exception being the open contempt Donkey Kong has for Mario.)

Some of that could be attributed to a desire to make The Super Mario Bros. Movie extra-accessible to Mario first-timers, but as the Luma gag shows, writers can get plenty weird with their jokes, and they’ll land just fine — for another example, consider Jack Black’s performance as Bowser. Or any other Jack Black performance, really.

Like the status-quo-bucking game it came from, the Luma in The Super Mario Bros. Movie is a risk — a cute character that craves death (in a fun way!) in a kids’ movie — that shows off the potential range you can experience in a Mario story. Which is ultimately the biggest barrier in the public consciousness about Mario — How much, those unfamiliar with the source material may think, can you really do with a guy who just jumps on things? The answer is, quite a lot! And it’d be nice if there were more things like the Luma in this movie to show that off.

The Super Mario Bros. Movie is now playing in theaters.

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