That Old Jack Black Magic: As the Villain of ‘The Super Mario Bros. Movie,’ the Actor Gives His Peachiest Performance in Years

I have a little ritual when it comes to animated films. I try to go into them not knowing who the cast members are. That’s not always possible, of course. For the most part, though, I do my best to ignore the publicity and let the voices I hear surprise me — because if you don’t know who the actors are, you respond, I think, in a less biased and more spontaneous way. “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” made my crusade easy, since the film has no opening credits. From the earliest moments, I had no idea who was voicing any of the characters. But I did know this: When the villain, a gigantic fire-breathing horned turtle named Bowser, showed up in his studded-leather arm bands, lowered his fire-red eyebrows into a gleaming, gap-toothed grin of the most insidious megalomania and began to push and order people around, all I could think was, “I like this dude.”

He had the low voice and omnipotent attitude of the world’s zillionth Darth Vader knockoff, except that you also saw how hard he was working to project that image. He’d issue a directive that was short and blunt and Vaderish, like “Open the gates… or die!” But then he’d say something that went on a little too long and revealed a little too much, like, “I will ask their princess… to marry me in a fairy-tale wedding!” He wanted to crush the denizens of the Mushroom Kingdom but was desperate for their leader to fall in love with him. He was a dictator but a weirdly vulnerable one. When he sat down at the piano to spill out a soulful heavy-metal-meets-soft-rock ode to his beloved Princess Peach, I confess that even then, I didn’t recognize the actor voicing him as Jack Black. But by the time he sang that song, I knew that I might be watching the villain of the year.

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If you’re wondering how the Jack Blackness of it all could sail right over my head, I’d say that that’s actually the key to what makes it such a luscious performance. We all know what Jack Black sounds like: the smart-aleck suburban hipster cadence, the rapid-fire stoned logic of whatever he’s saying, the disarming friendliness — I would say it’s almost a state of grace — that’s the baseline of that old Black magic. It’s the quality he had in “School of Rock,” where he gave the greatest performance by an actor that year, and also the quality he brought to the “Kung Fu Panda” films, where he sounds just like himself. I knew going into “Kung Fu Panda” that Black was the star of it, but even if I hadn’t I think I would have recognized his voice in 10 seconds.

But in “The Super Mario Bros. Movie,” Black changes up his aspect. He gives himself over to this Vader-meets-Thanos-meets-plushie role with less of the italicized campiness you might expect (and that the villainous characters in animated films almost always have). He deepens his voice into something darker and richer and grander than we’re used to; he never puts Bowser’s ego between air quotes. He does something a lot more interesting, which is to make us empathize with him.

Bowser doesn’t sound like “Jack Black,” exactly, but he’s still a geek in a video-game monster reptile’s body. Bowser, as (brilliantly) realized by the animators, has a mean squint to him, but he also has a leer of rapacious eagerness. He’s a destroyer of worlds only because he wants to crash a party he never got invited to. And it’s that undertow of eagerness, that anxiousness about ridicule, that coveting of Princess Peach combined with an almost touching jealousy of anyone else she might like, that stubborn silly-sublime humanity that’s the quality Jack Black brings to the movie.

He also brings that song, of course, which went viral on TikTok. The video of “Peaches” really is Jack Black — in the flesh, in a black-and-white Talmudic beard, tickling the ivories of a peach-colored grand piano in a peach-colored room by the ocean, prancing around the room in a shiny green suit with a sly balletic lightness. And what a song! It could almost be an outtake from “Bat Out of Hell” — pouring his voice into this slightly absurd love anthem, Black sounds like Meat Loaf on a power-ballad bender crossed with Tom Jones. Did he make it all up on the spot? The beauty of it is that you can just about believe that he did, especially when he gets to the hook (“Peaches, peaches, peaches peaches peaches…”), part of the cracked glory of which is that it doesn’t even entirely make sense. The name of Bowser’s princess muse, as he states earlier in the song, is Peach; why would he be saying Peaches? Because that’s what Jack Black’s inner Jack Black demanded that he say. Because it makes that hook float into your ear like butter. In “The Super Mario Bros. Movie,” Black reminds you that he’s a master of mockery who is also disarmingly sincere. He’s Darth Innovator.

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