BYU professor contributes character design to ‘The Super Mario Bros. Movie’

Mario, voiced by Chris Pratt, and Luigi, voiced by Charlie Day, are pictured in Nintendo and Illumination’s “The Super Mario Bros. Movie,” directed by Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic. The film was released April 5. (Nintendo and Universal Studios via AP News)

The Super Mario Bros. Movie” has powered up through the box office charts to become the highest-grossing film of the year to date.

The Illumination Studios animated feature has grossed over $1 billion in the month since its release. As of May 2023, it holds the spot as the eighth highest-grossing animated film of all time. 

The film joined the ranks of review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes’ Billion-Dollar Film Club, alongside other Illumination films “Despicable Me 3” and “Minions.”

BYU design professor Sam Nielson worked remotely as a character designer for the film, contributing to characters like Mario, Luigi and Peach. 

Nielson’s professional resume includes character design and concept art for video games and a handful of movies. Work on “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” was uniquely challenging because it involved tweaking already-established characters, he explained.

“How do you make something feel genuine to the intellectual property? There’s a certain personality and quality that makes Mario, Mario,” he said.  

According to Nielson, the film enjoyed high box office sales because of the Mario franchise’s popularity with audiences. Illumination Studios tried to remain faithful to Nintendo’s original creation, he said.

“It was kind of unapologetic in what it was,” he said. “It was Mario doing his “woohoos” and bouncing off of things and getting power-ups. It was all these things that normally a Hollywood type would say don’t work in a movie.”

Princess Peach, voiced by Anya Taylor-Joy, and Mario, voiced by Chris Pratt, are pictured in Nintendo and Illumination’s “The Super Mario Bros. Movie,” directed by Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic. The film turned the usual Mario trope on its head by writing Princess Peach as a heroine rather than a damsel in distress. (Nintendo and Universal Studios via AP News)

Despite its commercial success, critics said the plot of the film fell short. Of the 52 films in the Billion-Dollar Club, “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” is thirty-ninth in terms of critical rating. 

There is a significant disparity between critical and audience responses. On Rotten Tomatoes, “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” garnered a 96% in audience score, in contrast to the 59% critic score.

“Critics haven’t loved it, but it’s fine, because it wasn’t ever made to satisfy critics, it was made to satisfy Mario fans,” Nielson said.

BYU film student Courtney Mattingley said she gave the movie five stars on her Letterboxd account, but she understands why the critical response was not very enthusiastic.

“I feel like a lot of times when critics critique a movie, they think about how it holds up to other movies,” she said. “A lot of audience reviews are more based on the experience you had watching the movie.”

Mattingley said she thought the film was colorful and fun. She did not go into the theater with high expectations.

Adlee Bunker, third from left, and friends dress up for “The Super Mario Bros. Movie.” Bunker said the Super Mario Bros. Wii game is her favorite in Nintendo’s catalog. (Photo courtesy of Adlee Bunker)

“I know a lot of people have said that the movie’s not very deep and is just kind of nostalgia-pandering, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that,” she said.

Adlee Bunker, a BYU sophomore from Idaho, went to watch the movie with a large group of friends several days after its theatrical release. She and her friends dressed up as Nintendo characters for the occasion.

“I dressed up as Luigi,” she said. “It’s very much the way to go to the movies, I’ve decided.”

Bunker said she enjoyed the film’s references to Nintendo games and the voice acting. Jack Black’s voicing of Bowser was “too good to be true,” she said.

Bunker has already been back to the theater for a repeat viewing of the film. At the end of the day, she said she trusts audience scores over critical scores.

“Maybe Mario didn’t have the most thought-out plot, but it was still fun,” she said. “It was an entertaining movie for Nintendo fans.”

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