The Lessons Nintendo Needs to Learn for Mario, Donkey Kong, and Future Video Game Movies
Nintendo is clearly trying to stake their claim in the film world with the upcoming animated Mario and Donkey Kong films recently announced to be in development but are they going about it the right way? Their partnership with Illumination, the animation studio behind franchises like Despicable Me, Sing, and The Secret Life of Pets, seemed like a great choice given the studio’s pedigree. Illumination’s movies are generally well-received by moviegoers as their films have never scored below an “A-“ rating on CinemaScore and Minions currently ranks 21st on the list of the highest grossing movies of all-time above big blockbusters like Captain America: Civil War, Aquaman, and Skyfall.
Not to mention, with Detective Pikachu weirding a lot of fans out with the transition to live-action and PlayStation adapting live action tv series based on iconic properties like Twisted Metal and The Last of Us, Nintendo could easily own the animated space alongside Illumination with animated adaptations of their games. However, the reveal of the voice cast behind the currently untitled Mario movie at a September Nintendo Direct absolutely shocked the world and not in a good way. While the choices of Anya Taylor-Joy voicing Peach and Jack Black voicing Bowser were fine, many fans were left scratching their heads as to how Seth Rogen was chosen to voice Donkey Kong and especially how Chris Pratt was picked for Mario. No one saw this coming and for good reason since, well, it’s Mario.
The characters of Super Mario are so popular they don’t need big-name celebrity voices behind them to get people to come see the movie and honestly, they’re more iconic and well-known than anyone that could ever voice them. Instead of getting people excited about the Mario movie, fans were in an absolute uproar with the casting choices and now it’s become kind of a laughingstock. It also seemed shocking that they would announce a Donkey Kong solo film where Rogen would reprise his role so soon after considering the backlash. The idea of Mario and Donkey Kong getting their own animated films felt like a dream come true that’s now left people wondering if Nintendo is just going to continue the trend of bad video game movies.
Video game movies have struggled forever to get things right and Nintendo should really be looking to past and current failures to course correct since these two movies are likely going to lead to something bigger. With Nintendo having Smash Bros., there’s no way that talks about a shared universe of Nintendo films hasn’t come into the conversation. So, before Nintendo drops that first Mario trailer and Chris Pratt gets another weird voice role like he just did with Garfield, let’s see what Nintendo can learn from fellow video game movies.
In an era of the film industry where everyone is attempting to get their own shared film universes off the ground and generally biting off more than they can chew, the Mario and Donkey Kong movies need to find a balance in expanding their film worlds. Both franchises have a lot of characters, locations, and stories to work with and there needs to be a sense of balance that showcases an enticing world for fans to become invested in while still hinting at more.
This year’s Mortal Kombat reboot attempted to do this by introducing some storylines and teasing that fan-favorite character Johnny Cage would come in a potential sequel but still didn’t offer enough. It’s story surrounding new character Cole (Lewis Tan) was weak and the only thing that the film builds up is the titular fighting tournament that isn’t really that big considering what we know about the games. The games, themselves, have actually built a more compelling cinema-caliber story than the basic one in the film, and it missed a big opportunity to explore the different realms of Mortal Kombat and the big baddies that could be future threats like Quan-Chi, Shinnok, or even Shao Kahn – who is strangely barely mentioned.
Resident Evil looks like it’s trying to build out a universe of its own with the upcoming reboot Welcome to Raccoon City, but it sadly has the opposite problem. The film is blending the events of the first two games into one story and while that allows for a lot of classic characters and iconic moments to take place in one film, it looks like a jumbled mess because of it. The idea of framing the events around Chris (Robbie Amell) and Claire Redfield (Kaya Scodelario) is good in making these stories look more cohesive, but it already feels like Welcome to Raccoon City is blowing its load on lore and trying to do too much at one time. Also, unless the movie is over two hours, which is doubtful, there’s going to be so much story cut out from both games because there’s no way they can fit everything into one 90-minute horror movie.
Video game movies simply need to be a balanced experience that pleases die-hards with some respected nostalgia while hooking newbies/casuals by giving them a deeper look into a well-known franchise and then bring everyone together in excitement for what’s to come. Mario and Donkey Kong can easily achieve this given their rich worlds. Why not have a fun Mushroom Kingdom adventure that brings some of Mario’s well-known friends and foes along and maybe hints at the possibility of heading on a future space adventure to see Rosalina or some lesser-known series like Paper Mario or Super Mario RPG? Why can’t we have DK trek through the jungle introducing some beloved members of the DK crew and teasing the idea of storylines from games like Tropical Freeze? There’s a lot of potential to build a very special film world for these two and maybe, just maybe, we can have the smallest of teases at a Smash Bros. storyline that’ll light the internet ablaze.
A major misguided thought with video game movies is that big-name celebrities are needed to make the property appeal to wider audiences. However, by doing this, there are certain elements lost in bringing iconic characters to life. The casting of Ryan Reynolds as Detective Pikachu ended up being distracting as his voice was too akin to Deadpool and Milla Jovovich’s star-power and Alice being the main protagonist took away from fan-favorite characters eventually coming to the Resident Evil filim franchise. Thankfully, this problem isn’t as prevalent anymore since casting choices have definitely improved. The Mortal Kombat reboot’s casting was spot-on and thankfully evaded some of the whitewashing of the 1995 original. Alicia Vikander being cast as Lara Croft was perfect for the rebooted look of the modern Tomb Raider games. Best of all was Pedro Pascal being cast as Joel for The Last of Us tv series since he looks like Joel and could easily be great at depicting him.
However, there are still some mistakes made in bringing iconic characters to life that don’t go unnoticed. On paper, Avan Jogia’s personality is pretty perfect for portraying fan-favorite Resident Evil protagonist Leon Kennedy in Welcome to Raccoon City, but they’re doing nothing to make him look remotely like Leon, so it just looks like Jogia in a police uniform. Uncharted fans have been very vocal about their annoyance at Tom Holland and Mark Wahlberg not looking like Nathan Drake and Sully, respectively, and it’s been a big issue of why the upcoming Uncharted movie hasn’t gotten fans all that excited.
As mentioned before, Nintendo has already flubbed this with the ridiculous voice cast, but there’s still a chance that the animation with overshadow some hesitancy with the voices. For what it’s worth, even if the characters not exactly sounding like themselves, the looks at least will be spot on because of the movies being animated. So, it’s more than likely that fans will still gush over seeing Mario and Donkey Kong on the big screen in a cinematic adventure.
Lastly and possibly most importantly, these two films CAN’T lose their distinct identities in trying to be different for sake of it. Like any reboot of a nostalgic, well-known franchise, it’s okay to add in new elements or place characters in new situations, but the essence of those characters and the overall feel of a franchise can’t become lost in translation. The Resident Evil film series is synonymous for trading out horror elements for big cinematic action leading to fans of the game series, like myself, struggling to really see it as Resident Evil. It’s rare to find a video game movie that really nails this, but Mario and Donkey Kong could learn a thing or two from a fellow classic gaming icon who just had a really good film outing – Sonic the Hedgehog.
Last year’s Sonic the Hedgehog movie was a big win for video game movies and showed a lot of progress. It told an original Sonic story that threw him into the real world for some fast-paced fun depicting the charm of the character through some nuanced writing and a strong voice performance from Ben Schwartz. It listened to fans about the redesign of Sonic which made them joyfully rally around the film to give it a strong box office presence while alluding to a meaningful future with a nice post-credit scene featuring Tails. Honestly, future video game movies should take a page from Sonic because of how it was handled, and Nintendo should definitely look to it to find a winning formula in bringing their characters to life. There’s no reason that Mario and Donkey Kong wouldn’t benefit from a nuanced approach as long as their iconic charm and style come along too.
Nintendo has definitely gotten off on the wrong foot with their Mario and Donkey Kong movies but that doesn’t mean they’re hopeless. There’s plenty of time for Nintendo to change the narrative of the situation and even if it doesn’t happen with Mario or Donkey Kong, that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen with another one of their iconic franchises. An animated Legend of Zelda movie or a family-friendly animated sci-fi horror Metroid movie could easily sway fans back in their corner so long as learn from the mistakes of others to create a bright future for video game movies.