Last night, Nintendo announced that it had finalized its deal with Universal Pictures to produce a Super Mario animated film. The film will be co-produced by Nintendo's Shigeru Miyamoto and Chris Meledandri, who has produced every Universal animated project since the first Despicable Me. Illumination Entertainment, Universal's go-to animated studio, will be handling the production of the film.
Some folks have feelings about the matter, given that Illumination is well-known for its Despicable Me franchise. The Despicable Me films and the Minions within them are a pop culture phenomenon. Even if you've never watched the film, you probably know of the the tiny pill-shaped, gibberish-talking Minions. Ubisoft's somewhat-similar Rabbids came first, but they don't have the global reach the Minions do.
I can understand the distaste to the idea of Mario in Illumination's hands if you've only interacted with the company's work via tangential Minion exposure. That said, out of the available choices, Illumination is probably the best Nintendo could've gone with.
The major animation studios are Pixar, Walt Disney Animation, Dreamworks Animation, Warner Bros Animation, Sony Pictures Animation, Blue Sky Studios, and Illumination Entertainment. So let's go down the line.
If your dream was Pixar Mario, the company has Incredibles 2 this year, Toy Story 4 next year, two original animated films in 2020, and another untitled project in 2021. The company's slate is full and it didn't become Pixar by doing licensed projects. The studio prefers to work on original films.
Walt Disney Animation Studios has experienced a bit of resurgence since switching over to computer animation and likewise tends to work on its own stuff now. Zootopia and Moana are being followed by Ralph Breaks the Internet: Wreck-It Ralph 2 this year and Frozen 2 next year. The studio has an unannounced picture in the works for November 2020 and another film planned for 2021. Again, we're looking largely at original projects here. In Disney's mind, why mess with properties you don't own and have full control over? Nintendo would keep Mario's merchandising rights, which is a no-go for Disney.
Dreamworks Animation is a more likely candidate for a Super Mario film, given that it's less concerned with the multimedia beyond the feature film. Unfortunately, its schedule is full until 2022, mostly with sequels. How to Train Your Dragon 3, Trolls 2, The Croods 2, The Boss Baby 2, and original projects in the form of Everest and Spooky Jack. If you look at Dreamworks over the past few years, they've been profitable, but not wildly so. Their highest grossing film worldwide was How to Train Your Dragon 2 at $621 million and their budgets hover in the $125 - 145 million range. I think they could do a solid Super Mario film, but I'm not seeing its overall slate as vastly superior to Illumination.
Warner Bros Animation is even less successful than Dreamworks, though their animation budgets are smaller. The Lego Movie turned out great creatively and commercially, making $469 million on a budget of $60 million. Warner bet big on Lego, but the trend is downward: The Lego Batman Movie made $310 million and The Lego Ninjago Movie made $122 million, both with slightly larger budgets than The Lego Movie. Warner still has some more Lego on its mind, with The Lego Movie Sequel and The Billion Brick Race both coming in 2019. Outside of that, Warner Animation is diving into its own back catalog with a new Scooby Doo film in 2020, a planned film based on the Jetsons, and Space Jam 2. We're looking at a studio that's not found consistent success yet, but might get there eventually.
Sony Pictures Animation is feast or famine. This year's releases include Smurfs: The Lost Village, The Emoji Movie, and The Star. All three made a bit of money, but the reviews were mixed to dire. Peter Rabbit looks like it may match that due to some weird marketing, but it could turn out better. The studio will finish out the year with Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation, Goosebumps: Horror Land (the live-action film was through Sony Animation), and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. The latter is looking great, but overall Sony is mixed. Budgets are low, but reviews swing wildly, and only Hotel Transylvania 2 has broken $400 million in gross in the past six years.
That leaves us with Blue Sky Studios. They're 21st Century Fox's animation studio. For Blue Sky, Super Mario would actually be doable. It's a one-film-a-year studio, but its last scheduled film will be Nimona in February 2020. Blue Sky has found a decent amount of success with the Ice Age films, though reviews get worse with each entry and 2016's Ice Age: Collision Course seems to point towards the franchise starting to burn out. Reviews for films like The Peanuts Movie and Ferdinand end up on the higher half of the scale, but both films were just barely profitable. Blue Sky Studios, like Sony and Warner, is having a tough time finding that magic consistently.
Given all that, let's look at Illumination Entertainment. The studio has only been around since 2010, as the studio was founded by Chris Meledandri after he left 20th Century Fox Animation and Blue Sky Studios in 2007. The studio's biggest critical misstep was Hop, its second film, but since then it's made solidly reviewed films in the 60-70 percent range; that's not Pixar-quality, but it's more consistent than other competitors and Illumination is not working on Pixar budgets.
Unlike Pixar and Disney Animation, Illumination projects have yet to break $80 million in terms of budget. Despite that, the return-on-investment has been great. Despicable Me made $543 million worldwide on a budget of $69 million. Despicable Me 2, Minions, and Despicable Me 3 made $970 million, $1.1 billion, and $1 billion respectively and the budgets only bumped up $10 million from the first.
Even outside of that one property, the studio makes films that get solid reviews and make money. The Secret Life of Pets has a 74 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, making $875 million on a budget of $75 million. Sing quietly made $632 million after a late December 2016 release with the same budget. The key here is consistency.
Illumination is cheaper than Pixar and Walt Disney Animation, who wouldn't do a Super Mario film anyways. It's more consistently profitable than Dreamworks and Warner Bros. And it makes better films than Sony Pictures Animation and Blue Sky Studios most of the time. Maybe the future will bring ruin, but Illumination Entertainment is the best choice out of the available studios and for Nintendo, it leverages an existing relationship with Universal. (Nintendo's Super Nintendo World theme park is through Universal Studios Japan.)
Even creatively, what kind of grand film are we envisioning here that Illumination Entertainment couldn't do? The story of Super Mario has never been that deep or meaningful, which is why we have years of speculation as to the Mario Brothers' last name (Mario), whether Toad's mushroom is his head or hat (Hat), and if Mario was actually punching Yoshi back in Super Mario World (Yes).
There's a definite tone that needs to be hit, but Illumination is cognizant of this. You don't want to be the second studio to screw up the rare Super Mario Bros film. There's a reason Miyamoto is co-producing the film: so he can be there every step of the way to make sure they don't do Mario wrong. We bet against Mario + Rabbids and look how that turned out?
Illumination is the safe choice here, the smart choice. Even if you hate Minions memes-I'm not a huge fan-the films are solid creatively and commercially successful. The studio's track record is rock solid. Of all the available options, Nintendo made the right one. Now we just have to wait until 2021 for the actual film.