How the First Super Mario Bros. Movie Caused Nintendo to Withhold Rights for Decades

The first time Hollywood made a Super Mario Bros. movie, Nintendo saw it as an experiment. The results frightened them.

John Leguizamo and Bob Hoskins in Super Mario Bros
Photo: Disney

Video game film adaptations haven’t always been smooth sailing, but with Illumination Entertainment’s work on the Super Mario Bros. Movie, the iconic franchise appears ready to receive a rejuvenation in the world of cinema. It’s taken a long time to get to this point, with Nintendo becoming very guarded over the rights to their properties and characters. It’s also become a difficult part of being a Nintendo fan: knowing that many of these beloved titles may never get adapted into a big screen spectacle.

But why is it that so few productions have come from the Japanese console and game company? And what does the future look like after that tumultuous journey? As with many things regarding Nintendo, it all comes back to Mario

The Failure of Super Mario Bros. (1993)

To truly look at Nintendo’s time in the moviemaking biz it’s important to go back to the film that really changed everything. The failings of 1993’s live-action Super Mario Bros. film have been well-documented. While the casting might have been commended, from the sets to the character designs, it was as if the filmmakers had never even picked up a game; much less a Mario title. The movie really didn’t hold a candle to the adventures players were having on consoles, and Nintendo was incredibly disappointed by the final results from the production Lightmotive, who developed the project before securing distribution via Disney’s Hollywood Pictures.

The film itself was apparently seen as something of an experiment by Nintendo. According to producer Roland Joffé, who obtained the rights for his Lightmotive from Nintendo President Hiroshi Yamauchi for $2 million, the company was initially confident that Mario could stand alone as a brand whether the movie worked or not. Joffé later told Wired that “I think they looked at the movie as some sort of strange creature that was kind of rather intriguing to see if we could walk or not.”

Ad – content continues below

The financial situation would reveal they could not. The movie absolutely bombed, earning just $38.9 million worldwide despite a budget lying somewhere between $42 and $48 million. It’s probably not all that surprising with those results that the planned sequel was canned. A Super Mario Bros. movie series was dead on arrival, and the reception genuinely spooked Nintendo, who took drastic action to prevent a similar situation from happening again. 

Withholding of Rights

In an incredible move, Nintendo stopped licensing their movie rights to any other movie studios or companies. That has lasted almost 30 years, which is a genuine rarity for any major entertainment brand. That didn’t just apply to live-action but to animation too. Nintendo always cared about quality first, and so no matter how many pitches came their way, the studio did not budge on the principle. Interestingly, one example included a Zelda CG animated movie that never saw the light of day, which would have perhaps been a very appealing choice considering the popularity of the franchise. 

Regardless, Nintendo remained recalcitrant. The only ongoing exceptions were the anime Pokémon shows and movies, which often didn’t receive proper cinematic releases and were also overseen by The Pokémon Company itself. Strangely, the one  instance in live-action of Nintendo changing their minds was with the 2015 film Pixels. The organization allowed characters like Donkey Kong to appear in that movie, probably as a result of how well-received Bowser’s licensed cameo in the Disney film Wreck-It Ralph (2012) was received. Conversely, the critical backlash to Pixels soured that decision. 

Live-Action Pokémon 

Interestingly, the Hollywood movie that broke the run for Nintendo in a serious way was based, again, on Pokémon: Detective Pikachu launched in 2019 and was not only directly inspired by the game of the same name, but took advantage of the capital that had been gained from the animated run. Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures, the $433.2 million box office was a sure sign that Nintendo had made the right choice. The promising performance thus paved the way for some unexpected moves as Nintendo began to open up to the idea of a new run at the movies. 

Mario and the Future of Film

This month’s The Super Mario Bros. Movie is a positive sign of Nintendo continuing to move forward with their video game properties. It also appears to at least partially be a byproduct of Nintendo’s blossoming relationship with Universal Pictures, which owns Illumination, after the media companies partnered to create Super Nintendo World at various Universal Studios theme parks around the globe. Also intriguingly, while it has been noted that there are already potential plans for Mario spinoffs, including a possible Donkey Kong movie, Nintendo does appear to be focusing on that quality over quantity mantra.

It has been reported that Nintendo are incredibly positive about the Illumination production, with the good news suggesting the company won’t shy away from Hollywood quite as quickly as they once had. Indeed, it seemingly opened the doors for plenty more adaptations, including further Pokémon narratives like a TV show being developed at Netflix, as well as a Detective Pikachu sequel. 

Ad – content continues below

Formation of Nintendo Pictures

Nintendo’s dedication to moving forward in the industry has even led to the company forming a new animation studio. Clearly lessons were learned from the first live-action Mario movie and the company is instead looking towards more animated projects, besides their Pokémon outings. As part of the new Illumination deal, Nintendo have set up Nintendo Studios, a moviemaking department dedicated to overseeing the development. However, the organization then took a step further, buying up the Tokyo-based CG animation studio, Dynamo Pictures, and renaming the entire department Nintendo Pictures. Clearly there is a long-term plan in place to really get moving and make up for lost time. 

While that long-wait over nearly 30 years might have seemed like forever, the state of video game movies is now far different. Perhaps Nintendo made the correct move in staying away from the industry for the rest of the 1990s and 2000s, as other studios tried and failed to adapt video game IP. Now that the game itself has changed, Nintendo could be prepared to dominate with a range of properties that are completely fresh in a cinematic format. The Super Mario Bros. Movie should be just the beginning.