PHOTOGRAPHS BY ADAM AMENGUAL; BACKGROUND BY ILLUMINATION AND ILLUMINATION STUDIOS PARIS, Chris Melandari grooming; TerraRose Puncerelli/The Wall Group
The most famous video game designer in the world is sitting meditatively in a drab studio in Burbank. The austerity of the room is in stark juxtaposition with all the colorful characters he’s dreamed up over a lifetime, from mushroom-gobbling plumbers to mystical warriors to barrel-hurling gorillas. He’s the brains behind two of the biggest video game franchises of all time: Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda. In fact, this visionary’s influence is so vast, he’s been compared to Walt Disney or Steve Jobs.
And as Shigeru Miyamoto picks disinterestedly at a breakfast burrito, he’s an island of calm in a swirl of chaos. His team of handlers — Nintendo executives from Japan and America — is frantically hovering around him like a protective ring of Koopa shells. Miyamoto, who has granted only a handful of major interviews, is here to discuss “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” with Chris Meledandri, CEO of Illumination. Both served as producers of the animated feature from Universal and Nintendo.
“We’ve never seen this level of intensity from the audience in anticipation of a movie,” says Meledandri, whose “Despicable Me” series is the highest-grossing animated franchise in history. The numbers back him up: 750 million people worldwide viewed the “Mario” trailers.
Out April 5, the film stars Chris Pratt as the mustachioed plumber and marks Mario’s return to Hollywood, 30 years after the franchise’s live-action film adaptation bombed at the box office. (In an interview with Variety, the directors of that movie call it a “suffering fest” that left a “stain” on their careers — more on that later.)
But before Miyamoto can discuss all that, his harried translator insists the questions he’ll be asked in a lighthearted video interview are impossible to answer. Miyamoto cannot talk about Nintendo’s combat series Super Smash Bros., his translator says, because he doesn’t play the games much. Nor would he dare weigh in on the most misunderstood Mario title or reveal his favorite franchise villain.
While Miyamoto’s refusal to answer fun questions is frustrating, it becomes apparent that, for him, these questions aren’t “fun” at all. Prodding Miyamoto, who calls himself “Mario’s mom,” to name his go-to Super Mario character is more fraught than asking him to pick a favorite child — it’s practically a Sophie’s Choice. If, for example, he names Bowser over Toad, he might alienate millions of fans around the world.
It’s not that Miyamoto is difficult — quite the opposite. Once he and Meledandri sit down for a more formal conversation, Miyamoto gamely gets into the nitty-gritty. Dressed in a red Mario T-shirt underneath a black blazer, the slim 70-year-old is nearly as animated as his characters. While he’s been described as “Nintendo’s mascot,” Miyamoto is humble, using “we” rather than “I” to avoid taking sole credit for developing a series that has sold more than 413 million copies and grossed more than $30 billion. When discussing his creative process, he interrupts himself with puckish laughter and flashes a disarming smile.
“The Super Mario Bros. Movie” marks a critical moment for Hollywood and its attempts to establish a larger foothold in the gaming world. The attraction is obvious. Video games generate $350 billion annually, dwarfing the revenues of the film, television and music industries.
It’s also an important step for Nintendo, which has been skittish about translating its video games to film ever since Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo picked up a pair of plungers in 1993’s “Super Mario Bros.” That film flopped spectacularly, landing on various “Worst Movies of All Time” lists. Its production was marred by drunken actors (Leguizamo later admitted to downing whiskey with Hoskins between takes), last-minute rewrites and explosive fights between the producers and the directors, married couple Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel.
In hindsight, it’s clear what went wrong. Morton recalls briefly meeting with Miyamoto before production began on “Super Mario Bros.,” but Nintendo had zero involvement in the movie, something that Morton regrets.
“If I’d have had a relationship with Miyamoto and brought him onboard, if he had been a producer and he understood what we were doing, he wouldn’t have let certain things happen,” Morton says. “We would have been a team, and it would have been a different film.”
Produced by a Disney subsidiary, the movie was viewed as a licensing experiment by Nintendo, which yielded creative control to the film’s backers. The fiasco spooked Miyamoto and kept Mario off the big screen for 30 years.
“We were fearful of all the failure of past IP adaptations, where there’s a license and a distance between the original creators and the creators of the films,” Miyamoto says, without specifically referencing the ’93 movie. “The fans get outraged and mad because the studios didn’t do justice to the original work. We really didn’t want a backlash.”
It wasn’t just a Mario problem. Ever since the original “Super Mario Bros.” movie, video game adaptations have largely face-planted while trying to make the leap from console to cinema. Yes, 2001’s “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” starring Angelina Jolie was a massive hit, but that’s been the exception to the rule. Does anyone remember “Assassin’s Creed,” “Warcraft” or “Double Dragon”? Not even a shirtless Jake Gyllenhaal with abs of steel could save “Prince of Persia.”
“Movies are a different medium,” says Donna Langley, chairman of Universal Pictures. “It can’t just be about super-serving core fans. These adaptations must tell a good story that resonates with general audiences.”
In the past few years, more projects stuck the landing — from HBO’s zeitgeisty “The Last of Us” to the flourishing “Sonic” movie franchise to the Tom Holland hit “Uncharted.” Increasingly, studios are looking to video games as a vital source of IP: It can’t just be superhero movies, after all.
Nintendo’s trepidation about joining in the fun explains why the idea for a Super Mario Bros. animated feature floated around Hollywood for decades. In 2014, leaked emails revealed Sony had spent years negotiating to acquire the film rights, with the animation studio’s then-president of production eager to “build a Mario empire.” That deal never materialized, which helped Meledandri land the property and give Mario a 1-Up.
Meledandri first got to know Mario in the early ’90s, when he bought a Super Nintendo for his office at 20th Century Fox and watched his young son “light up” while playing Super Mario World, still considered by purists to be one of the greatest of the plumber’s many adventures. Since the game’s 1991 release, millions of players have become just as attached to Yoshi, Mario’s dino sidekick, as to their own childhood pets.
“The impact of Mario in my life was watching my son’s joy,” Meledandri says. “When you see your child light up, you are immediately pulled toward whatever it is that’s lighting them up.”
It’s no surprise that Miyamoto found a creative partner in Meledandri. Throughout his time at Fox and Illumination, which he founded in 2007, he garnered a reputation for developing highly profitable family films and steering successful adaptations of beloved properties, such as “The Grinch.” But it wasn’t Meledandri’s highlight reel (or the Minions) that earned Miyamoto’s trust. What marked a turning point was Meledandri’s openness about his most embarrassing failure — the 2000 film “Titan A.E.,” directed by Don Bluth and Gary Goldman, which he supervised while at Fox, losing the company $100 million.
Meledandri argues this disaster gave him the courage to leave Fox to start Illumination.
“My ability to do that was tied to the fact that I had already confronted my fears,” he says. “When I did fall on my face it was very freeing. I wouldn’t have had the courage to do my own thing had I not confronted that failure.”
While the 63-year-old Meledandri is shy and soft-spoken, Miyamoto is warm and playful, a designer who, with 1981’s Donkey Kong, single-handedly wrested the video game industry out of the hands of programmers and engineers and into those of artists. His vision helped grow Nintendo into a $50 billion company, yet Miyamoto can’t be bothered to talk numbers.
Don’t let Meledandri, outfitted in jeans and a navy blue quarter-zip, fool you. Even though he’s not one to play up his competitive nature, friends say Meledandri works around the clock, coordinating between Illumination’s main hubs in Los Angeles and Paris. And what he’s accomplished defies the prevailing odds. At a time when animated studios such as Disney and Pixar have stumbled at the box office, releasing duds like “Strange World” and “Lightyear,” Illumination remains on top — with last summer’s “Minions: The Rise of Gru” grossing nearly $1 billion, a pandemic-era high for the genre. The studio has found the right formula for mixing subversive jokes aimed at older audiences with cuddly creatures that appeal to younger moviegoers. “I’m probably the least funny guy who has produced so many funny movies,” Meledandri admits.
Aaron Horvath, who directed “Mario” with Michael Jelenic, says Meledandri is “similar” to Miyamoto “in that they both tell stories in very experiential ways.”
For Miyamoto, the film had to mirror the agony and ecstasy of playing a video game. “The reason we were so resistant and careful to adapt our games into movies is because in video games there is always a player, who overcomes challenges and fights their way through,” Miyamoto says. “Their struggle — redoing the levels over and over — is all part of it.”
It’s a realization that may point to why so many other game adaptations fail: “Just following the plot points of the video games will never work as a movie,” Miyamoto explains. “Without the involvement of the player, it won’t meet expectations.”
When Mario first enters the Mushroom Kingdom in the movie, he gapes at its alien creatures and floating islands, marveling, “What is this place?” In fact, his introduction to this magical land is probably reminiscent of yours, when you first hit “Start” on a Super Mario game.
After all, Miyamoto says, “we recognized that each fan of the video game has a Mario in themself, as he is the avatar that represents the player.”
With that in mind, “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” sets out to re-create the most visceral aspects of the player experience: the addictive frustration of respawning after a platforming blunder; the Mario Kart customization process before a grand prix; the sweaty-palmed exhilaration of perfectly honing a Bullet Bill. And there’s also an unabashed spirit of fun that the makers of the film were eager to bring to the story.
“We wanted to treat this movie like ‘Star Wars’ or ‘Indiana Jones,’ or even the Brendan Fraser ‘Mummy,’” Jelenic says. “That’s what this film is: an adventure movie.”
Perhaps the most important aspect of Movie Mario is his voice, which lit the internet on fire when audiences unfavorably compared Pratt’s toned-down take in the first trailer with the over-the-top Italian intonation they know and love.
“To develop the voice, I sampled various Italian and New York accents,” Pratt tells Variety in a lengthy email. “As the directors and I developed the character, we came to land on a voice that is different than Charles Martinet’s version of Mario, but also different from my own voice.”
While Pratt was “surprised” by the social media snark, he adds, “My hope is that people will come into the movie with an open mind and that once they see the film, any criticism around Mario’s accent will disappear.”
Pratt grew up in Lake Stevens, Wash., where the strip malls on the side of the highway were his hub world. At 9, he’d hop from his family duplex to Fowlds Dry Cleaners, a coin-operated laundry that had the Super Mario Bros. arcade game. “I would walk to Alfy’s Pizza and stick my scrawny arm behind the jukebox to see if any coins had fallen out of the coin return,” he says. “If, by chance, they had, I would scoop them up and go straight to the laundromat to play Super Mario Bros.”
“This was a daily routine for me,” Pratt adds, admitting that once or twice he’d fish for quarters in the wishing well near the Mexican restaurant in Frontier Village. “I cannot count the number of hours I devoted to rescuing Princess Peach and fighting Bowser.”
Now, Pratt leads a Mario mission fit for the big screen, with a voice cast including Anya Taylor-Joy as Peach, Jack Black as Bowser, Charlie Day as Luigi and Seth Rogen as Donkey Kong. When casting, Meledandri’s team pulled audio clips from a range of actors and listened to their voices while staring at character drawings. Once Illumination narrowed each role down to four to five voice actors, they presented options to Miyamoto.
For Day, voicing Luigi meant having an opportunity to put his own imprint on the character that he most frequently played as a childhood fan of the games. “My older sister would always go first, and she would inevitably get to be Mario,” he remembers. “So, because of that, Luigi kind of became my favorite.” But finding Luigi’s patois involved some trial and error. “They kept giving me one note: ‘This is “Super Mario,” not “Goodfellas.”’ But it’s always a process,” he says. “And when you do these kinds of voice roles, you need to approach them with a childlike sense of ‘Let’s try anything.’"
Meledandri and Miyamoto’s association dates back nearly a decade. After meeting in 2014, when each executive independently worked on building attractions at Universal Studios based on “Despicable Me” and Super Mario Bros., Miyamoto and Meledandri began visiting each other in Kyoto and Los Angeles. Their talks dwelled less on what went wrong with the 1993 “Mario” movie and more on how they could translate the vibrant spirit of the games to the screen. “If we talked about that earlier “Mario” film for five minutes in the last eight years, that’s an overstatement,” Meledandri insists. “What we were interested in building was a partnership that stood in stark contrast to what that process was in the early ’90s. Or in fact, in contrast to any other partnership between a Japanese creator and an American studio.”
They started off teaching each other about the differences between making a movie versus creating a game.
“In video games, character serves the gameplay,” Meledandri says. “In movies, character is everything. Our story is in service of character.”
After the pair discussed a variety of potential collaborations between Nintendo and Illumination, they landed on Mario because the character’s vague backstory left “room to create dimension that wasn’t there.” But making the first animated “Mario” movie forced Miyamoto to answer a question he had dodged for more than 40 years: Who is Mario?
The character — who debuted as Jumpman in Miyamoto’s Donkey Kong, is a blank slate by design. “Mario is essentially a character created for Nintendo to develop more interesting, innovative games in the future,” Miyamoto explains. “We were hesitant to create a backstory because we want Mario to be without restrictions. To establish a background for him might become a disadvantage for future games.”
Based on his limited biography, we know Mario is a plumber who wears an oversize red cap, blue overalls and a bushy brown mustache. He has a brother, Luigi (the green one), and he’s prone to blurting out enthusiastic catchphrases, delivered in a thick Italian accent, like, “Here we go!,” “It’s-a me!” and “Mamma mia!” Aside from that, he’s a cipher. When asked what type of person Mario is, Miyamoto recalls a conversation he had in the mid-1980s with Japanese animator Yōichi Kotabe, who refined Miyamoto’s pixel art of Mario into full-fledged character designs.
“When Kotabe asked, ‘Who is this character?,’ I told him, ‘Mario is a person who will never hurt any other people,’” Miyamoto says. “That really struck him.”
The version of Mario in “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” is more fleshed out. Here, he’s a blue-collar New Yorker living at home with the fearful Luigi and their sprawling Italian American family. After the brothers launch a plumbing business, they set out to save Brooklyn from a flood and get sucked into a fantastical universe filled with armies of Toads, Koopas and kart-crafting Kongs.
But to Miyamoto, assigning a personality and backstory to his most famous creation was less important than replicating on-screen the feeling of playing the games.
“Rather than overthinking who Mario is, it was more important to visualize what we see in the video games as authentically as possible on the big screen,” Miyamoto says.
That process started with preliminary 2D models of Mario before Illumination’s animation teams passed three-dimensional designs back and forth between L.A. and Paris. Every step of the way, Nintendo artists fine-tuned the visuals with “draw-overs.” In some cases, that required Miyamoto to step in himself.
In one meeting, with Horvath and Jelenic in France and Nintendo in Japan, Miyamoto was staring at a drawing of Bowser, fixated on his snout. Miyamoto took a screenshot with his iPad and, as the meeting dragged on, started sketching on top of the illustration. Eventually, he interrupted — “Hey, check this out,” Horvath remembers him saying — and held his tablet up to the screen.
“He’d done this drawing over our drawing and explained how we hadn’t gotten Bowser’s muzzle area exactly right — that it’s actually based on a tiger, with the nose and upper lip shapes,” Horvath recalls. “It was kind of a revelatory moment.”
As lifelong fans of the games, the team behind “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” obsessed over nailing the textures of the Mushroom Kingdom. “The amount of conversation about Mario’s boots,” Meledandri says with an exaggerated sigh, “the texture of his hat, the slight adjustments of facial features, how we handled his hair …” He trails off. “Then we get into movement.”
It was vital to Miyamoto that Illumination capture the minutiae of Mario’s motions: how he runs, how he jumps, how an extended fist — no, not his head — breaks brick blocks from below. “It seems random, but all of those small things translate to that direct memory of the fans,” Miyamoto says.
Because it’s been ingrained in pop culture for half a lifetime, it’s easy to forget how imaginative, psychedelic and, well, deeply weird the world of Mario is. Magic mushrooms that make you bigger? A rainbow-colored racetrack in space? A fire-breathing reptile who ravages kingdoms with his floating pirate ship?
Illumination was tasked with making sure these concepts were believable within the logic of a movie. It’s a goal that, for the directors, extended as far as justifying why there are floating blocks in the Mushroom Kingdom, despite their explanation never making it into the film.
“Our idea was that there’s a mineral that’s natural to the Mushroom Kingdom, which we call ‘floatanium,’ because it sounded funny to us,” Horvath says. “The Toads mine it and transform it into these blocks and use them for construction purposes.”
One reason Meledandri’s movies are successful is that “he’s allergic to exposition,” says Jelenic. “We never slow down and explain where the mushrooms came from and how they make your particles grow.”
After all, “if you look at Mario through the lens of a superhero, it’s no weirder than Peter Parker being bit by a spider and gaining superpowers,” says Horvath.
Mario wasn’t the only character who needed fleshing out. In the movie, Black plays a heavy metal-inspired Bowser whose relationship with Peach isn’t quite captor and captive. And while he “needed to be evil enough that the stakes are high for the characters,” according to Miyamoto, “Bowser has evolved into a unique, lovable villain.
"You do find cuteness in him.” For Black, the challenge was playing both those notes. “I needed to bring the fire, thunder and brimstone,” he says, “while also finding the sympathetic parts of Bowser.”
Meanwhile, Peach, formerly a passive royal in need of saving, blossomed into a fearless leader.
“In the games, we kept Peach as a damsel in distress who is rescued by Mario for a while, but we wanted to make her a playable character and a more powerful princess,” Miyamoto says. “We pushed that even further for the movie.”
While the film is teeming with Easter eggs and fan-favorite cameos, the specificity never overshadows the story of an Everyman who must save the world. That hero’s journey is familiar enough to appeal to viewers who haven’t spent entire weekends in pursuit of the next checkpoint. Besides, Mario has become globally recognizable, so much so that even those who have never held a controller can identify his stout silhouette or hum Koji Kondo’s bouncy theme music, which features prominently in the film.
And because Mario has been a cultural force for decades, his cinematic adventure has multigenerational appeal. Black, a Mario mega-fan since the ’80s, says it’s the first movie he’s made that resonates with his teenagers.
“My sons are at that ‘leave me alone’ phase of their lives, but with this movie they’re all, ‘Yo, Dad, what’s up with the premiere? Can we come?’” Black says. “I’m stoked that Mario has made my kids care about my career."
As he enters his eighth decade, Miyamoto has spent much of his life designing new challenges for his flagship character and, in turn, himself. But as the Nintendo legend embarks on his next level, he shows no signs of slowing down. Hollywood is far from Miyamoto’s final boss.
A few days after the interview, Miyamoto appears at the opening of Super Nintendo World at Universal Studios Hollywood. Dashing out of a giant green warp pipe, Miyamoto amps up an adoring crowd about to enter the physical manifestation of a place that once only existed on their screens. Fist-pumping the sky, he receives howling cheers reminiscent of rock concerts. Posing next to Mario and Peach, Miyamoto is a celebrity.
After all, he’s spent most of his life in the public eye, serving as the face of Nintendo. But according to Miyamoto, he struggles in the limelight.
“When I get attention, I get hesitant and shy,” he says. Then, comparing himself to his self-proclaimed child, he adds, “I do not want Mario to be a superhero that is always on a pedestal. I want him to be a normal guy who doesn’t seek attention too much.”
You get the sense Miyamoto would rather be hunched over his desk, dreaming up new worlds, than basking in the applause. There, his guiding philosophy can be summed up by a cherished memory. That morning in Burbank, he recalls playing the 1999 Sega rhythm game Samba de Amigo with his neighbor, a lawyer, as their children surrounded them, watching their dads shake controllers shaped like maracas and dance along to the TV.
“That made me realize that we should focus on the shared experience. It was truly an ‘aha’ moment to see kids enjoying their dads playing video games,” Miyamoto says, his eyes sparkling with nostalgia. “That changed our direction.”
Miyamoto laughs gently and then, after a brief pause, reveals what his unwavering mission is all about: “creating a joyful family experience in the living room.” Only now, those connections will be made in movie theaters around the world.
As “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” eyes high scores at the box office, Meledandri’s connections to Nintendo have only grown stronger. The animation executive now holds a shiny spot on Nintendo’s board, having been appointed as an outside director in 2021.
Still, he and Miyamoto are tight-lipped about the future of their Mario empire. When asked about potential sequels, or projects adapted from other Nintendo properties, Meledandri smiles knowingly, and delivers a line that feels rehearsed: “Our focus right now is entirely on bringing the film out to the audience, and at this time, we’re not prepared to talk about what’s coming in the future.”
But the Illumination chief isn’t willing to leave it there, teasing, “I definitely wouldn’t rule anything out.”
Variety's Ethan Shanfield and Brett Lang contributed to this post.