Illumination CEO Chris Meledandri is apparently under the assumption that his studio is being criticized for casting Chris Pratt as the eponymous plumber in its upcoming Mario movie due to concerns over Italian representation and not because, you know, Chris Pratt sucks.
“When people hear Chris Pratt’s performance, the criticism will evaporate, maybe not entirely,” Meledandri told Deadline. “People love to voice opinions, as they should. I’m not sure this is the smartest defense, but as a person who has Italian-American heritage, I feel I can make that decision without worrying about offending Italians or Italian-Americans. I think we’re going to be just fine.”
Meledandri, who is also a producer on the animated film alongside Super Mario Bros. creator Shigeru Miyamoto, went on to say the project is “the fulfillment of a really important objective” and the relationship between Illumination and Nintendo is “unprecedented in its closeness.” These comments mean practically nothing, but it’s fun to pretend they’re insightful glimpses into the creative process.
The as-of-yet unnamed Mario movie garnered both bemusement and criticism when the voice talent was announced during a Nintendo Direct presentation last year. While, on some level, folks understood getting Jack Black to play Bowser and Seth Rogan for Donkey Kong, it was the film’s casting of Pratt as the titular hero specifically that turned heads. Some joked that having such a boring everyman in the role erased Mario’s Italian heritage. I guess Meledandri took that to heart.
It should be noted that Charles Martinet, the official voice of Mario since 1990, also isn’t Italian. In fact, Martinet’s oft-repeated origin story involves the actor riffing about “spaghetti and meatballs” in a stereotypical Italian voice during his audition for half an hour before landing the job.
“[Nintendo] told me I was an Italian plumber from Brooklyn, so my instinct was to try a gruff and coarse voice—’hey you, get outta my face!’” Martinet told BBC in 2012. “What popped into my brain was a character I’d played in [Shakespeare’s] Taming of the Shrew. I was Petruchio going back to get his wife in Italy, and I was a sort of ‘Mamma mia, nice ol’ Italian guy.’ I thought I’d do something like that.”
With that in mind, it’s probably safe to say the pushback to Pratt’s casting largely isn’t about Italian or Italian-American representation, at least outside the irony-poisoned halls of Twitter. No, it’s more a matter of, as I said before, Pratt just plain sucking.
Even if you ignore Pratt attending a homophobic church, folks are sick of seeing his chiseled, shark-eyed face everywhere. He’s the latest in a long line of middling actors to secure blockbuster after blockbuster simply by virtue of being unassuming. In Pratt, Hollywood has found the perfect bland protagonist to plug into cookie cutter adventure flicks every summer, from hypnotizing velociraptors in Jurassic World to whatever the hell The Tomorrow War is all about.
There’s also the fact that animated movies in recent years have become all about being able to list a star-studded cast during trailers rather than hiring actual, talented voice actors. Far be it from me to criticize Charlie Day for accepting a role as Luigi, but we distinguish between “actors” and “voice actors” for a reason. Both artforms require far different skills that don’t necessarily translate to the other. Martinet’s career as an accomplished voice actor should have made him a shoo-in for the Mario movie, not just as a winking, Stan Lee-style cameo but as the plumber himself.
It’s a nice thing that Meledandri took jokes about Italian representation at face value, but it’s obvious he’s sidestepping the crux of the issue. I’d much rather he just came out and told the truth: They hired Pratt because they wanted to attach a big-name actor to the role no matter how large the dissonance between Mario’s portrayal in the games and the movie. And while I’m probably asking too much from a guy who had a hand in unleashing the Minions on the world, that’s between Meledandri and his god at this point.