While Zelda film, television and streaming projects have been rumored for years, the announcement of a Zelda film project on November 7, 2023, was a huge moment for the Zelda community. The announcement from Nintendo included several surprises. First, the film will be co-financed by Sony Pictures Entertainment, which shares a parent company with Nintendo competitor Sony Interactive Entertainment. Second, the Zelda film will be live-action rather than animated. This came as a surprise for many Nintendo fans who noticed the massive success of The Super Mario Bros. Movie. The 2023 film grossed $1.3 billion, and it was the second highest grossing film of 2023 behind Barbie.

Any discussion about the Zelda film should include a reminder for fans to be patient; it will be years before fans and critics see if Nintendo’s choice to position the Zelda series as a live-action film franchise will be a success or a failure. That being said, there are some legitimate reasons to wonder if Nintendo has ultimately chosen the wrong road map for adapting the Zelda series. Live-action fantasy is arguably the most difficult genre to succeed in. Whether it is cost, casting, production design, visual effects, or marketing, there are many ways that fantasy films or franchises end up being derailed. For every phenomenon like The Lord of the Rings or intriguing hidden gems like The Green Knight, there are countless live-action fantasy films that end up falling woefully short of expectations both critically and commercially. In addition to the challenges of making live-action fantasy films, the increased attention on animated films and streaming projects (including some critically acclaimed video game projects) makes an animated Zelda project feel more attainable than ever before. Finally, in deciding to create a live-action film, Nintendo and Sony may miss out on the generational cultural footprint that animated films from Disney and Studio Ghibli enjoy.

The Visual Effects/CGI Crisis Looms Large Over the Film and Streaming Industry


One of the biggest reasons to be skeptical about a live-action Zelda film is the amount of computer-generated effects that will be required to complete a Zelda film. Outside of the Hylians, Sheikah, and Gerudo, the different races in the Zelda series would require significant Computer-Generated Imagery (CGI) and Visual Effects (VFX) to be included in a live-action film. In 2023, many studios favor CGI over extensive physical prosthetics or animatronics because the studios generally believe that the use of CGI makes production easier, more reliable, and more predictable.

It’s reasonable to say that it is unlikely that races like Gorons or Rito would be created without enormous visual effects work. Even if Nintendo and Sony decide to only use races from the Zelda series that do not require heavy visual effects (like the Gerudo and Sheikah), many (if not all) of the creatures in the Zelda series would be created using CGI. Monsters like Skulltulas, Dodongos, and Gleeoks would likely be created digitally rather than using animatronics or puppets.

While there have always been visual effects work in film, the overreliance on CGI and issues with the way that VFX studios operate have been hot-button issues over the past few years. The emphasis on and use of VFX has skyrocketed in big budget films over the past two decades, all while long-standing issues within the VFX community have been unaddressed or gotten worse. Just like in the video game industry, there is crunch occurring at many visual effect studios. Some of the highest profile blockbusters of the year like Ant-Man: Quantum Mania and The Flash have been criticized for poor CGI and visual effects, and many industry veterans see these issues as the results of impossible deadlines and unrealistic expectations placed on employees working in the VFX industry.

Crunch, the cut-throat process of bidding for contracts, and other issues within the VFX community have no easy answers, and the lack of substantial progress toward reform of the industry is not a good sign for future films looking to include a large amount of VFX work in them. If you are interested in the issues with the CGI, VFX companies, and the film industry, I encourage you to check out this extensive reflection on the industry from British GQ (some mature language is included in the article). The article does an excellent job of highlighting the issues with CGI and VFX Studios.

Overall, the current climate of VFX and CGI work is one that leaves me nervous about the quality of the computer-generate effects that might be included in the upcoming Zelda film. While there are still examples of incredible visual effects in film and streaming, some of these projects are headlined by renowned filmmakers like Denis Villeneuve (Dune, Blade Runner 2049) or James Cameron (Avatar) who are generally given more time and bigger budgets to execute their visions. It feels like very few studios are immune to the technical issues that have plagued many recent blockbusters. For me, 2024 represents one of the worst times to be developing a film that will have heavy amounts of VFX in it.

Animation is a Great Fit for a Video Game IP Like Zelda

In addition to the questions surrounding the CGI and VFX in a live-action Zelda film, Nintendo’s decision for the Zelda series seems to disregard the incredible success of The Super Mario Bros. Movie. Using almost every metric, The Super Mario Bros. Movie has been an unparalleled success for Nintendo. The animated film, created by Illumination Studios and co-financed by Nintendo and Illumination, reportedly cost $100 million (before marketing) and grossed $1.3 billion. Any live-action Zelda film would likely have a significantly larger budget than the Super Mario Bros. Movie (at least $150-200 million).

Additionally, the Zelda series also has a smaller brand awareness compared with Mario, which is Nintendo’s most well-known character. An example of the brand power of Mario is that Mario Kart 8 Deluxe has sold 25 million more copies than Breath of the Wild has on Nintendo Switch. Additionally, there is no representation of the Zelda series at Universal’s Super Nintendo World theme park. While it is likely that many discussions and negotiations about the Zelda film happened before The Super Mario Bros. Movie was released, the immense success of The Super Mario Bros. Movie feels like a referendum on Nintendo’s decision to go live-action with Zelda.

Even disregarding the success of The Super Mario Bros. Movie, animation feels like a natural home for the Zelda series. The Zelda series has a variety of interesting art styles from which animators could draw from to create the visual identity for an animated film. For example, Sony and Nintendo could choose to take art elements like the cartoon style of The Wind Waker, the earthier color palette of Twilight Princess, the impressionist-inspired art style of Skyward Sword, or the vivid character designs in Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom. Nintendo and Sony have three decades of character designs and art styles that they can draw inspiration. While it is still possible for a live-action film to draw inspiration from the visual identities and character designs of past Zelda games, there are more limits to this process in live-action.

While the animated film and streaming industry has had its own sets of challenges over the past decade, some projects in the industry have received more attention from critics and audiences than their counterparts in previous decades. Adult animated shows like Scavengers Reign (Max) and Blue Eye Samurai (Netflix) garnered critical acclaim, and these two shows appeared on many publications’ “Best of 2023” lists. In July 2023, the all ages fantasy show The Dragon Prince (Netflix), which has an art style that would be a great fit for a Zelda film, debuted its fifth season to positive reviews. Recent video game projects like Castlevania (Netflix) and Arcane (Netflix)have been received warmly by both critics and fans, and they have shattered many casual viewers preconceptions about how good video game adaptations can be. While Castlevania and Arcane are likely more mature than a Zelda animated film would be, these shows illustrate that animation is a great medium for adapting video games.

In addition to the great animated projects on different streaming services, there have been some tremendous successes for animated films in 2023. As previously stated, The Super Mario Bros. Movie broke many records at the global box office. Sony, who will be co-financing and distributing the Zelda film, struck gold with its innovative film Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, which grossed $690.5 million. In December 2023, The Boy and the Heron, Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli’s most recent film, was the first original Japanese animation film to top the U.S. box office, and the film is Miyazaki’s biggest box office opening ever in the United States. In an era where all-ages and adult animation feel like they have more clout and more eyes on them than ever before, the choice to have the Zelda film as live-action feels like a move in the wrong direction.

Will the Legend Live Forever or for a Generation?

In describing his core concept for the upcoming Zelda film, director Wes Ball envisioned the tone and style of the film as “live-action Miyazaki”. Hayao Miyazaki is the acclaimed director of Studio Ghibli films like My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and Howl’s Moving Castle. Bell’s goal with the Zelda film is to capture the type of “wonder and whimsy that he [Miyazaki] brings to things.” This quote leaves room for interpretation, but it appears that Ball’s goal is to create a film with a more adventurous and joyful tone than some of the more dour and serious fantasy films of the past two decades. If Ball can follow through on this vision, I think it is a great choice. The Zelda series has always balanced a serious tone with a sense of joy and wonder, and it appears that Ball is aware of some of the things that make the franchise so beloved.

While I appreciate Ball’s statement of intent with the direction of the project, the invocation of Hayao Miyazaki feels like it could be a double-edged sword, particularly because it points people back to animated projects. There is some debate over whether any film can be “live-action Miyazaki” or if the essence of Miyazaki’s films can be translated into live-action (though some live-action theatrical productions of Studio Ghibli films have been created). The precision that designers and animators put into Miyazaki’s films has resulted in works that still look stunning today, and animators are able to create truly inventive designs in the director’s films. For example, it is challenging to imagine Miyazaki’s most recent film, The Boy and the Heron as a live-action project. The Boy and the Heron is a visual marvel that utilizes all the unique aspects of animation to create a surreal and beautiful visual experience.

Additionally, when comparing live-action films to animated films, one of the biggest advantages that animated films have is that many of these films invariably end up being shown to children in subsequent generations. Children of the 1990s are now old enough to show their own children their favorite animated films and shows. Live-action films do not necessarily get the same level of exposure that animated films get in households where young children are growing up. Disney Renaissance films like The Lion King or Beauty and the Beast are not better than their live-action counterparts, but these animated films might find their way to young viewers earlier than their live-action counterparts. The availability of the Studio Ghibli catalog on the streaming service Max has given more people access to a host of beloved animated films like My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away that they can start showing their children or young relatives. The “evergreen” quality of great animated films means that these films always have the potential to create a new generation of fans, even if they were released decades ago.

While there are some live-action film franchises that have endured for many years and spanned generations, I believe that a well-made animated Zelda project would stand the test of time better than a live-action film project of equal quality.

Conclusion — Cautious But Hopeful

Overall, I hope that the live-action Zelda film is a rousing success. Whatever the format, my hopes are that a Zelda film project will bring more positive attention to the video game series and help even more people to discover all of the different games in the series. In choosing live-action over animation, it is possible that Nintendo has taken the hardest road to success for the Zelda series. With the VFX crisis affecting the quality of special effects, the success of The Super Mario Bros. Movie, and the potential generational impact offered by animation, Nintendo and Sony have an epic journey ahead of them. My hope is that Nintendo and Sony equip the filmmakers with the best chances to succeed, and that they give the cast and crew the budget and time required to create something legendary.

What do you think? What are your thoughts and opinions on the upcoming Zelda film? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

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