Even In The Full Movie, Chris Pratt's Super Mario Voice Is A Big Disappointment

To state it up front: Chris Pratt is not a bad actor. He's an affable screen presence with a talent for playing funny, shiftless dopes with warm hearts, and it makes perfect sense that he should have helped a major sci-fi film series — "Guardians of the Galaxy" — achieve its popularity.

It should also be said that Pratt, in playing the voice of Mario in "The Super Mario Bros. Movie," is not a terrible performer. He was handed a script full of vaguely heroic dialogue and a blandly determined hero, and he stepped right up to the mic and gave the part what it demanded of him. He didn't give a bad performance.

The issue with Pratt in the role of Mario is that he wasn't the right actor for the part. There was some controversy when Pratt was announced as the star of "The Super Mario Bros. Movie," as many assumed actor Charles Martinet — who had provided the voice of Mario in various Nintendo games since the 1990s — would play the part. A generation of kids grew up hearing Martinet say "Let's-a go," "It's-a me! Mario!," and "Oh yeah! Mario time!" A Mario movie would have been Martinet's chance to shine and, importantly, retain a certain amount of aural continuity from game to screen. Instead, Universal Studios went with a blockbuster matinee idol like Pratt.

What does Pratt bring to Mario? The answer, sadly, is not enough. Mario is written as a bland hero, and Pratt plays him like a bland hero. This was a chance to play up Mario, to give him an outsize personality, to really expand the character into something human. Pratt doesn't do that.

Let's-a go!

Not that Mario was ever a fully human character. By his very construction, Mario had no backstory, no hopes and dreams of his own, no life beyond his role as a video game avatar. While some video games are keen to explore the medium of interactive storytelling, the Mario games have been content to remain colorful puzzle adventures. "Saving the princess from a dragon" is the simplest possible motivation a game creator can invent, and it was hardly the most crucial part of the game. It wouldn't be until Charles Martinet came in to start speaking for Mario that a vague character would emerge. Like the ur-example of pop culture blank slates, Mickey Mouse, Mario doesn't have much personality to work with, but with Marinet, Mario became determined, friendly, and excited about fast-moving colorful things ("Woo-hoo!").

Chris Pratt had an opportunity to bring something new to the table. The table remained clear. Pratt could have overacted, invented an outsize voice, or been a little silly. Instead, he was ... Chris Pratt. Apart from a few Brooklyn flourishes, Pratt  aimed to sound like "just a guy." Both he and the filmmakers went with the dullest possible decision. I suppose having no personality is in keeping with the spirit of the games, but one expects more from a feature film.

Other versions of Mario had also appeared over the years. In 1989, Lou Albano played Mario on "The Super Mario Bros. Super Show!" and the character was presented as a buffoonish 1930s movie comedian, doling out cheap quips and occasionally falling down. He was also a little filthy (he kept his phone in a pizza), and obsessed with Italian cuisine. Lou Albano is hardly Lee Strassberg, but he did at least play a part.

Albano, Hoskins

The same can be said for Bob Hoskins, who played Mario in the infamous 1993 feature film "Super Mario Bros." Taking quite a different tack than the games, the 1993 film featured Mario lost in a parallel universe dystopia threatened by ultra-evolved, humanoid dinosaurs. Hoskins has admitted that he didn't know what "Super Mario Bros." was when he agreed to play the role, and it may have helped his performance. For Hoskins, Mario was an impatient, middle-aged New Yorker, eager to work but struggling with poverty. He loved his younger brother Luigi, as well as his sassy girlfriend. Many still hold the 1993 film to be quite bad, but for my money, it's a strange and creative sci-fi story, grounded by actors who are bothering to bring some energy to their characters. 

Poor Chris Pratt doesn't even rise to that level. It's such a disappointment.

Again, this is largely not Pratt's fault. He was roped into playing a mascot character for a film that feels, more or less, like a giant commercial. "The Super Mario Bros. Movie" seems to exist merely for reasons of brand extension, and the characters in it are meant to be artificial outcroppings of their in-game counterparts. Clearly, none of the filmmakers felt comfortable transforming Mario into something larger and more exciting, or even more energetic (as Charles Martinet likely would have done). Instead, we have Chris Pratt. Doing Chris Pratt. He brought more energy and character to his roles in "The LEGO Movie." Which, not incidentally, was also a corporate tie-in movie, so we know it can be done.

Again, Pratt does Pratt well, but, for goodness sake, couldn't he have done something else? Or anything at all?

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