Box Office Smash Bros: the case for a shared and animated Nintendo cinematic universe

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Grab your Pokédex, draw your Master Sword and do a barrel roll, because you may warping to a mushroom-adjacent kingdom on the big screen sometime soon.

Rumors have been swirling about that Nintendo will soon be bringing its iconic stable of video game characters to the big screen, and as recently as last month, Nintendo president Tatsumi Kimishima implied that he was pursuing using the money from the sale of the company’s shares in the Seattle Mariners baseball team to fund the production of movies. He expressed a desire for the movies to be largely produced by Nintendo, possibly in partnership with an existing movie studio, and stressed — probably while recalling images of 1993’s disastrous live-action Super Mario Bros. — that they ought to be animated.

I don’t know about you, but that’s very welcome news to this Nintendo fanboy. Nintendo’s characters are truly iconic and instantly recognizable, and trying to translate them into live action would lose what makes them so special. To me, and to many fans, making Mario in live action is something akin to making a live-action Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny. It doesn’t make much sense, and it’s always going to be a bit creepy. There are Nintendo properties that can work outside animation — and we’ll get to those shortly — but the majority of their biggest intellectual properties are designed as cartoon characters. But animation is not the only tool that Nintendo ought to utilize.

Hollywood has been falling all over itself looking for the next Marvel-esque shared-universe gold mine, and while it’s hard to predict what will resonate with fans (Iron Man wasn’t a household name before 2008, after all), I think Nintendo has the best lineup of characters. But what would an Animated Nintendo Cinematic Universe look like? So glad you asked ...



Some of you are probably still stuck on the point that I’m saying no to a live-action Legend of Zelda (of which a Netflix series was briefly rumored) and a live-animated hybrid Pokémon (which has been rumored to be heading to the big screen), so before we get into how a Nintendo Cinematic Universe would ideally work, let’s talk a bit more about why animation is the best move for Nintendo as an overall franchise.

I’m not saying that all Nintendo properties are unfilmable; far from it. Off the top of my head, Punch Out!, Fire Emblem and Kid Icarus could all prove interesting in live action and wouldn’t lose any of their core elements. Metroid certainly has the potential to be a suspenseful, compelling sci-fi film, and would be the property I’d most like to see in live action, but that’s just wishful thinking anyway.

Because Nintendo won’t start with Metroid.

Whenever Nintendo gets around to making films, regardless of their form, they’ll start with one of the big guns: Super Mario Bros., Legend of Zelda or Pokémon. This isn’t just a prediction based on it being a smart business move; it’s also completely consistent with how Nintendo promotes its various franchises. Just look at the dozens of Mario games and spinoffs, or the number of Legend of Zelda titles, and compare that to the excruciatingly slow release schedules of smaller but still proven franchises like Starfox and Metroid. You can be sure that when Nintendo makes their first movie, it won’t be breaking this pattern.

Looking at those big three — Pokémon, Mario and Zelda — two of them are inherently cartoony franchises. Who wants to see a movie that has hyper-realistic Pokémon interacting with actors, a la this week’s Warcraft? I know I don’t. A key part of the appeal of Pokémon is the visual style of the monsters, and while it might be fun to see fan art of super-detailed or biologically accurate Pokémon, it wouldn’t really feel like Pokémon, and it wouldn’t be a smart move financially to take away the most bankable aspect of Pokémon, which is their recognizability. Plus, hundreds of episodes and nearly 20 movies of the anime have proved Pokémon’s effectiveness in animation, and it’s arguably the medium that more people know the franchise from.

I would make a case for why Mario needs to be animated, but we’ve already seen how disturbing it can be when real actors don Mario and Luigi’s overalls.

Pikachu and Mario are two of the most bankable faces in all of pop culture, Nintendo would be foolish to try and force them into media that don’t emphasize what makes them special. It’s like trying to fit a Super Star-shaped peg into a Pokéball-shaped hole.




Part of the appeal of adaptations of comic books or novels is that we usually haven’t seen those characters “come to life” before, so seeing them moving and breathing on screen is exciting. But that isn’t the case with video games.

I’ve seen Mario come to life plenty of times. To players, Mario has been “alive” since 1981. Seeing him run and jump as a “real person” is not a particularly new experience. Most of us have made him do that ourselves. So, if Nintendo wants to make a Mario — or any other Nintendo character — movie worthwhile, they have to give audiences something that they haven’t already got elsewhere, while at the same time not losing what makes us like the character in the first place. The best way to do that is to use high quality animation to make them look like — or better than — the video games, and to tell stories that they don’t have the room to tell in the games.

In a Mario movie, for example, we can finally find out what the heck is going on with the Mushroom Kingdom’s sociopolitical climate (OK, maybe I’m the only one who wants that), and flesh out the stories behind the world we know so well. We know Bowser likes kidnapping Peach, but why? What is behind the Mushroom Kingdom’s obsession with kart racing? How do locales like those featured in Yoshi’s Island, Warioland, Mario Sunshine, or Luigi’s Mansion relate to each other and fit into the larger world?

Nintendo’s franchises have plenty of dots, and the movies are the perfect place to start connecting them. They need to begin to fill in the blanks, answer the question marks on all those boxes, and start building a cohesive universe.

But how does Nintendo go about building its universe? Let’s say Nintendo releases a Mario/Pokémon/Zelda movie, and it’s a huge hit, and of Pixar-like quality. Great! What then?

It may be obvious and a fanboy dream, but the best way to establish a large, weird, diverse universe is through a Super Smash Bros. movie. A lot of the framework can be lifted right out of The Subspace Emissary storyline from Super Smash Bros. Brawl, which begins showing a friendly battle between Kirby and Mario in a massive coliseum, which is interrupted by an interdimensional invasion that draws in heroes from many other worlds to fight back against it. Using this setup would allow Nintendo to use whichever first movie as a jumping off point, following the protagonist — whether it’s Link, Mario or Pikachu — from the first film into the ensemble of a Smash Bros film. From there, they’d be in a position to show off many of the IPs that general audiences might not be as familiar with, and gauge interest before spinning them off into their own films. Super Smash Bros. can be the spine of the universe in the way that The Avengers is for Marvel, which uses it to bring beloved characters together, but also to elevate lesser-known ones.

Besides, we already know that audiences will accept a movie that takes video game characters of different genres and styles, mashes them together and allows them to duke it out and traverse between each other’s worlds.

We know this because Disney already did it in 2012 with Wreck-It Ralph. Wreck-It Ralph showed more or less the type of worlds we’d see in the shared universe I’m describing, although Smash Bros. would use a different method of connecting the worlds than through wires connecting games in an arcade. Wreck-It Ralph is a love letter to the strange world and history of video games, and all its wildly different genres. The film’s romantic subplot was between what could be seen as Mario and Samus analogs, a testament to the movie’s success at giving audiences a world where such different characters can coexist while making it all visually cohesive — something it never would have been able to do if it hadn’t been animated.




Another evergreen family-entertainment studio, Pixar, largely avoids repeating a genre, and it’s worked out pretty well for them. Looking to Pixar for inspiration on how to make animated movies is no-brainer advice, but Nintendo really has the catalog of characters to be able to pull off a similar model in the long term. Nintendo’s stable is comparable in scope to Marvel’s, and similarly, part of what make the Marvel Cinematic Universe rewarding to watch and commercially successful is the genre diversity in their films. The contrasting genres and disparate parts of the universe are often the source of conflict and fuel for stories, and just as often are played for laughs. The possibilities and applications for Nintendo properties are endless.

The sci-fi corner of the Nintendo Cinematic Universe is easy to imagine. Both Metroid’s Samus Aran and F-Zero’s Captain Falcon are space-faring bounty hunters, so them going after the same mysterious target and crossing paths and being forced to work together (after fighting, of course) would be an easy opportunity for crossover. The Starfox crew of Falco, Slippy, Peppy and Fox would all fit right into a galactic animated Nintendo film as well.

Nintendo has fantasy covered with Legend of Zelda, but I wouldn’t discount the potential Fire Emblem has as a film as well. If Game of Thrones has proved anything, it’s that audiences love watching fantasy countries undergo violent political turmoil. And what if Link found himself suddenly transported to Archanea, teaming up with a Fire Emblem protagonist to find his way home?

Want an inspiring underdog sports story? Punch Out! could be a hilarious homage to boxing films if done right. I can also see a heartwarming animated feature waiting to happen with Ice Climber. An adorable pair of Inuit kids climbing up a perilous mountain, while being attacked by a condor and polar bears wearing sun glasses and pink shorts is definitely a movie I’d watch. But then again, I’d also watch a horror-comedy Luigi’s Mansion movie, get fresh with a colorful Splatoon action movie, or weep through a boy-and-his-dog movie about Ness from Earthbound befriending the dog from Duck Hunt.

Let’s be honest, we don’t really know what Nintendo will do. As much as they like their A-list franchises, they also have a reputation for being wildly unpredictable. Nintendo may follow through and produce animated movies, or they may decide to keep doing what they’ve been doing and let their IPs stay in the digital realm.

But if Nintendo truly wants to be successful in the film industry, they should utilize animation to do justice to their icons and keep their spirits intact. They should also use a shared universe to truly give audiences something new, and to highlight the rich history and variety of Nintendo’s characters.

Of course, this is only one aspiring Pokémon Master’s opinion. Do you have your own ideas for how Nintendo’s future cinematic efforts should look? Show me your moves in the comments.

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