40 years ago, when Shigeru Miyamoto began creating iconic characters and games for Nintendo, he was often compared to Walt Disney, a comparison that has always irritated Miyamoto. But decades later, with Nintendo theme parks and now a full-length animated film based on Mario, is the creative face of Nintendo willing to accept the comparison?
Not so fast, says Miyamoto, who sat down with IGN ahead of The Super Mario Bros. Movie’s release. “When there was talk of comparing myself to Walt Disney 20 years ago, I thought, ‘No, please, I don’t deserve to be compared.'”
At the time, the similarities were there, certainly. Both Disney and Miyamoto became faces of companies famous for producing iconic characters as if it were easy. But Miyamoto has regularly bristled at the comparison, citing the longevity of Disney’s creations compared to Mario’s relative youth. Furthermore, Miyamoto opposes the idea of a single creative vision responsible for the success of any company.
“There was one thing that I found very interesting and curious, and that is that it is not that Walt Disney himself is creating all this, it is Walt Disney and there is a brand, Disney, that creates this,” Miyamoto rightly observes. “And I thought that concept was very interesting, in the same way as how can we create Nintendo as a brand?”
Today, Miyamoto is proud that Nintendo is a brand that people recognize as home to a lot of creativity. “I think we’ve been able to get to a place where there are a lot of creative people, a lot of characters and talent at Nintendo, and it’s gotten to a point where a lot of creative products are coming out that people recognise. like made by Nintendo,” says Miyamoto. “But that doesn’t mean there’s a person named Nintendo doing this. It’s everyone, and everyone at Nintendo, as part of Nintendo creating this product, and I thought it was really interesting and something that I strive to do.”
Arguably, the Nintendo brand has never been stronger. When the Wii launched in 2006 and broke all sorts of hardware sales records thanks to its innovative motion controls, followed later by the lackluster Wii U, there were certainly those who thought Nintendo might have reached its peak. But in 2023, following the industry-changing success of the Nintendo Switch, Nintendo has moved closer to Disney. The company has opened two Super Nintendo World theme parks and is about to release a new animated film based on Miyamoto’s most iconic character, Mario, in theaters.
Nintendo and Illumination first met in 2014, and according to Miyamoto, making a movie has always required the animation giant’s talent. “So this idea of making a movie out of games was something that came up and I had other offers. And some people, too, maybe thought that because we created the story in the games and the visuals for the games within our company, people thought, well, you can go ahead and make a movie, right? It’s easy to direct a movie, which is very different and not true.”
The movie develops Mario in a way we haven’t seen before. While his design is iconic, Mario doesn’t really have a backstory or any type of personality. But in The Super Mario Bros. Movie, Mario comes to life in a new way. He is an ambitious entrepreneur who, along with his brother Luigi, dreams of becoming a hero in their Brooklyn neighborhood, even if it means only fixing the pipes for citizens in need.
There’s an underdog quality to Mario this time around, and even the sadness of an unfulfilled life that only changes once he’s magically transported to the Mushroom Kingdom where he could finally become the hero he always thought he could be back home.
But all of that, of course, is subtext that can be gleaned from the gorgeous visuals, laugh-out-loud jokes, and deliciously fast-paced story. Mario was originally a vehicle for the best platformers in his class, not the avatar of modernity’s existential crisis. But if Mario’s iconic status is derived purely from the game, how did he end up being one of the most recognizable characters on Earth? And also, a canvas for narrative storytelling?
“This is a question that I have been asked before. Before, I used to think that it’s because it’s really the gameplay that makes Mario who he is, and that as people play and enjoy the game, this experience of playing, and as an extension of Mario, becomes part of them”, Miyamoto muses
“But now seeing Mario in movie form really made the point that this character is something that could really only come out of the needs of creating a game. So when it was made into a movie, I felt like we could create a hero that’s really unique in that sense, because where else could you create this hero, other than to meet the needs of the game? So, that was something I was happy about.”
Not only is Mario different because of his origins as a purely interactive hero, but it turns out that bringing Mario to the big screen ended up discovering a quality of Mario that was lost amid all the jumping and breaking blocks. “Mario is a worker, he is a normal person,” says Miyamoto. “So even when he becomes Dr. Mario, there’s a kind of ‘shady’, like can I trust this person?” Miyamoto jokes. “That stayed. And I think that’s the kind of image that’s passed down for generations as Mario. And to see that image match up, and then evolve, into some kind of hero is something I’m very happy to see.”
Mario as Everyman’s Hero is skillfully creative storytelling thanks to a partnership between Nintendo and Illumination, which is the latest Hollywood company to successfully adapt video games for film and television.
“At Illumination, we’re always evolving our technical capabilities, but I think what we talked about as an approach for the film was a real adherence and homage to the core design elements that were created for the game and that fans loved. ” says Chris Meledandri, founder and CEO of animation studio Illumination “And the way to achieve that goal is through the finer details. So when you see Mario or Peach, what you’ll see on the big screen are the characters you’ve met. But when you start to look closely, you start to see very, very subtle textures in the dress or how the folds of the dress create shadow.
And so when you take that approach, what ends up happening is that the world that you’ve engaged with while playing the game, all of a sudden, it starts to come to life, but it’s coming to life by looking at it through the tiniest of details. instead of changing any design language.”
Illumination joins a growing list of Hollywood companies eager to work on video game adaptations. When asked about this trend, Meledandri says that while many studios have tried video game adaptations, no one else has Miyamoto.
“Looking back, there was this Hollywood attraction to video games, but combined with the anxiety about whether or not they could be translated into movies… I think, in the past, people have struggled with that,” says Meledandri. “We took a unique approach, which was that we determined early on that the creation of this film would be a total partnership between myself and Miyamoto-san, Nintendo, and the Illumination team.”
As with the Nintendo team, Miyamoto praises Illumination’s creative flair. “A lot of them were really big fans of the Mario games. In fact, I felt that some of them were even more knowledgeable about them than I was. And so, that was also quite an experience.”
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Together, Illumination, Nintendo, Miyamoto, and Meledandri were able to evolve Mario for the next generation, where intellectual property is no longer locked into single channels.
“I knew that Mario was a character that was constantly evolving,” explains Miyamoto. “And seeing Mario on the big screen, I feel like there’s a new level of evolution that Mario has reached. And it’s not just about Mario… (At) Nintendo, we have a lot of different characters, and I almost see ourselves as a talent agency with a lot of characters and a lot of talent that we work with and try to figure out where they would best fit in what situation. . And in that sense, within this movie, there are a lot of characters that really made the evolution from a puppet class to a human class. So that’s something I really want to encourage everyone who sees the movie to keep in mind.”
If Miyamoto was downplaying the role of the singular creator in creative success, Meledandri dismisses it somewhat. “We’ve seen studios go without the creator and it hasn’t always been as successful. We’ve seen, at least one example that I can think of, where the game company went away and made a movie and it wasn’t as successful. This was many years ago, not from Nintendo. But when you think about this, It just makes a lot of sense that you would create this type of association.”
And who would pass up the opportunity to work with Miyamoto? “Our directors, Aaron Hovarth and Michael Jelenic, I mean, it was so exciting for them. And Matt Fogel, our writer, I mean, everyone until… I used to tell Miyamoto-san that everyone at Illumination wants to work. in Mario”, jokes Meledandri. “But the impact on the entire studio, whether it was one person who was working on Mario or not, just the fact that we were working with Nintendo and Miyamoto-san, energized the entire Illumination creative community, and I think you can feel that emotion. in the movie itself.”
And so we come back to the idea of Miyamoto as a creative and energizing force, someone who is excited to work with others and enthuse others to work with him, not unlike the Power Stars in Mario. It’s really hard not to make a Disney comparison here, isn’t it? Of course not.
“You know, I really feel like what’s important is that Mario lives on as a legacy, as a character, so I feel like I don’t even need to be a part of that equation,” Miyamoto says when asked how he’d like to reflect on his career, that has seen him evolve from a famous game designer to a producer of theme parks and movies.
“What I realized working on the park and the movie as well was that we are in a generation where all these people who grew up with Mario can now bring together other creative people and create something new. I think that’s what’s important. It’s kind of similar in the computer world where, initially, I think people who work on the gaming side of computers were maybe not looked down upon, but rather viewed in a different light. But now, there are people who grew up with games who are in the industry, and I think they’re all seen as the same. I think that’s what makes me really happy.”
“And then again, I’m fine either way.”
Matt TM Kim is IGN’s Senior Features Editor. you can reach it @lawoftd.
Some quotes have been edited or condensed for clarity.