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Illumination is Not the Right Studio to Make a ‘Legend of Zelda’ Film

Link from the opening cut scene of the 2019 remake of Link's Awakening

Even before The Super Mario Bros. Movie released and snagged the highest-grossing opening weekend ever for an animated film, people were wondering which Nintendo property would be next up for adaptation. Top among the contenders is The Legend of Zelda—after all, Zelda and Mario are the only Nintendo IPs to have ever received adaptations before. Now that Nintendo has “corrected” the Mario movie (although I’d personally argue the ‘90s Mario film is a miraculous mess), doesn’t it make sense for them to address their other wayward adaptation? Accordingly, the rumors have abounded.

Whether or not a Zelda film is actually a possibility, there has been an interesting assumption bubbling under the discussion: Illumination would handle all Nintendo films from here on out—including a possible Zelda film. Never mind the fact that Nintendo bought an animation studio last year—there’s another problem here. If you compare the tones of Illumination’s work to Zelda games (except maybe Wind Waker and the Toon Links), you’ll find a readily apparent mismatch as both properties are aimed at different demographics. Illumination simply isn’t the right studio to adapt The Legend of Zelda.

I don’t mean this a knock against Illumination in the slightest. They’ve done great work! Who doesn’t love the weird yelling yellow guys? And the fact that they’ve been able to make an adaptation of one of the biggest IPs on planet Earth where the worst thing anyone can say about it is, “it’s fine,” is a feat. Still, I wouldn’t want, say, the studio behind Aqua Teen Hunger Force to helm an adaption of Yoshi’s Crafted World. It’s a matter a tone and specialty.

How mainstream American studios pigeon-hole animation

Zelda and Metroid are generally thought of as the two Nintendo series which skew towards a slightly older audience. The low point of entry tends to be teens and very cool preteens.

Meanwhile, Illumination manages to make children’s films that are also enjoyable for adults. But they are, at the end of the day, unmistakably children’s films. This has been a very common takeaway from The Super Mario Bros. Movie. There’s a certain tone that makes it hard to imagine a teenager—a key demographic for a Zelda film—going of their own accord to most Illumination films.

As part of this tone, a lot of American children’s media shies away from addressing darker themes. Out of the major American animated film studios—Disney / Pixar, Illumination, and Dreamworks—Dreamworks and Pixar are the most likely to venture into more “mature” themes. 2022’s beloved Puss in Boots: The Last Wish is a great example. Still, most animated media which appeal to a variety of themes tends to be TV series geared at preteens such as Adventure Time, Gravity Falls, The Owl House, Steven Universe, Bee and Puppycat, etc. It is worth noting, however, that all the films and series I just mentioned have devoted fanbases which include teenagers and adults.

Basically, mainstream American animated features continue to play into the cursed stereotype that “animation is for kids.” And a lot of mainstream American film and TV addresses its child audience in a way which makes it very clear they’re aiming at kids. (Did you know that, in Japan, Demon Slayer is considered a kid’s series? By contrast, its Mugen Train film got an R-rating in the US.)

To find something outside of that stereotype, the only platform which appears to be making less easily pigeon-holed animated feature films is Netflix. For example, they funded Guillermo Del Toro’s wonderful and multi-demographically-appealing adaptation of Pinnochio, as well as Jordan Peele and Henry Selleck’s Wendell & Wild. Sadly, Netflix is currently cutting animation projects left and right, including a Gorillaz film. It’s one of many signs that the American animation industry is in dire straits.

Any number of incredible, smaller studios could deliver an amazing Zelda series. What about Powerhouse Animation Studios, which was behind Castlevania? They don’t have to make everything bloody, they’ve done work on other series, like O.K. K.O.!. Powerhouse is doing just fine (they’re currently working on another Castlevania series), but you get my point.

But, that also ignores the most obvious answer as to who could make an amazing Zelda film.

The case for a Zelda anime

For what I believe to be the best option for a Legend of Zelda film, let’s briefly revisit the opening cutscene to the 2019 remake of Link’s Awakening.

Tell me, straight to my face, that this forty seconds of gorgeous, pitch-perfect animation doesn’t make you want to sign up for 12 episodes right on the spot.

From the ending credits, it seems like Nintendo employed seven in-house animators to make the animated scenes in Link’s Awakening. So … yeah, more of this, please.

Do you know which country’s animation industry is incredibly good at making animated films geared to teens? And not just its domestic teens, but teens the world over? Japan’s! Look at any shounen anime series! Again, tell me that wouldn’t be the Zelda film—or series—you’d want to see. And, from that Link’s Awakening cut scene, Nintendo seems to know that this story should be an anime, too. Look on Reddit, and you will find Zelda fans attempting to wish a Zelda anime into existence.

The animation studio which is now Nintendo Pictures focuses primarily on CG—but, clearly, Nintendo’s down to hire outside of that style. They could make an in-house Zelda anime. But there are, of course, a number of amazing studios who could do a great job if Nintendo wanted to outsource. Ufotable just took on Breath of the Wild copycat Genshin Impact (yeah, I said it!), so they’re probably off the table. But, what about Wit Studio? What the hell would a MAPPA Zelda be like?!

It’s interesting to note that most fan animations—especially ones created by animators living outside Japan—imagine Zelda in an anime style. There have been a number of absolutely stunning Breath of the Wild fan animations which have never left my head. Nintendo should hire these people and get to work!

Another interesting and charming aspect of these fan animations is that they avoid dialogue completely. This is, of course, the biggest elephant in the room for any prospective Zelda adaptation: Link never talks. Except to say “hah!” and “hy-aaah!” From the games’ dialogue options, you can infer that Link does talk, but these lines are never voice acted. Link comes off very much as the strong, silent type.

This conundrum is also why the 1980’s Zelda series flopped on its face. Not only did that Link talk, that Link wouldn’t shut up. Plus, they gave him the weirdest possible catchphrase.

A largely silent protagonist is something which goes counter to a lot of ironclad rules of mainstream American media—especially mainstream children’s media. Have you ever watched a Studio Ghibli movie bootlegged, with the Japanese audio but subtitles from the dub? No, just me? Well, I can tell you there’s a hell of a lot of lines in Castle in the Sky‘s dub which were randomly added to fill space that aren’t in the original. But in Japan, we’ve got Ranking of Kings—a series where our hero is deaf and mute.

All in all, I’d argue that Nintendo should not place all of their IPs in the hands of Illumination. Certain series, like Zelda and Metroid, would be better served by either smaller American studios or by giving them the anime treatment. Who am I kidding—I just want a Zelda anime so bad, it hurts.

(Featured image: Nintendo)

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Kirsten (she/her) is a contributing writer at the Mary Sue specializing in anime and gaming. In the last decade, she's also written for Channel Frederator (and its offshoots), Screen Rant, and more. In the other half of her professional life, she's also a musician, which includes leading a very weird rock band named Throwaway. When not talking about One Piece or The Legend of Zelda, she's talking about her cats, Momo and Jimbei.