Mario & The Fate of Animated Movies

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We’ve all watched the Mario movie at this point, right? It seems like it, because “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” has broken the record for animated movies in opening box-office earnings. The plumber brought in $369 million worldwide in its opening weekend, beating out the previous record of $358 million. Who was the biggest record holder? “Frozen II.”

I’d never particularly cared about box-office records, but it was interesting to me that “Frozen II” was previously the top earner. In my childhood, Disney sequels were markedly unsuccessful compared to their original features and were largely direct-to-video. So the top spot being held not by the original “Frozen” but by its sequel felt like wildly new territory for Disney. Now "Frozen II" has been toppled by the Mario movie. If you’re curious about the other top opening earners for animated movies, the list goes as such:

  1. “The Super Mario Bros. Movie”
  2. “Frozen II”
  3. “The Lion King”
  4. “Toy Story 4”
  5. “Incredibles 2”
  6. “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs”
  7. “Finding Dory”
  8. “Minions: The Rise of Gru”
  9. “The Simpsons Movie”
  10. “Jiang Ziya: Legend of Deification”

There’s something of note here: almost all of these movies are adaptations. Now obviously all stories contain influences from other sources — after all, "The Lion King" is just a "Hamlet" retelling — but most of these are straight up sequels or adaptations of existing properties. Initially, this list made me a little sad. Do original movies just not have the same pull? Is the animation industry doomed to a fate of recycling the same franchises ad nauseam?

For anyone who sympathizes with these concerns, I think there are a couple of key factors here that might give us some hope. Firstly, that list is specifically for earnings in the opening run. It does make sense that sequels would do well in this category, if people enjoyed the original property then there’s incentive to see the adaptation, regardless of if it’s good. Looking at the highest grossing animated films of all time, a number of non-adaptations like “Frozen” and “Zootopia” make the list. Furthermore, these adaptations are doing well because a lot of time, effort, and money goes into them. Those old Disney direct-to-video sequels were a lot less successful than the originals, but were also a lot worse. Most of the animation in the sequels was outsourced and made at a much lower budget. “Frozen II” looks arguably better than the original with the animation done in-house and at a comparable budget. Anyone who watches the Mario Movie might notice something about them: a ton of care went into crafting this adaptation. So yes it’s definitely successful partially because it’s cashing in on the franchise’s fame, but it’s also just a well written movie that is rich in character and detail.

I think the “Super Mario Bros. Movie” shows that despite the industry leaning heavily on adaptations, with proper time, development, and marketing, the animation industry still has a lot to offer creatively.