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‘The Super Mario Bros. Movie’ Is Huge — but Second-Biggest Animated Film Ever? Uh, No

Illumination Entertainment’s “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” (Universal) wraps up its sixth weekend with a U.S./Canada gross of $536 million. That is by far the best box office haul for 2023 so far, with a real chance it could end up at number one for the year. If it reaches $600 million, Universal claims, it would overtake “Incredibles 2” (2018) as the biggest animated release ever.

This is not true.

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Look, “SMB” is an amazing achievement. Going into its sixth weekend, the final domestic total should be between $560 million and $580 million and $1.25 billion-$1.3 billion worldwide — double the advance expectations, and against a $100 million production cost. It’s a phenomenal result.

What is particularly impressive is how it stands among recent animated releases. It has passed all Pixar films other than “Incredibles 2” (that includes all “Toy Story” entries), all non-Pixar Disney releases (the two “Frozen” films being their top performers), and all the “Despicable Me”/”Minions” successes.

THE SUPER MARIO BROS. MOVIE, from left: Princess Peach (voice: Anya Taylor-Joy), Mario (voice: Chris Pratt), 2023. © Universal Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection
“The Super Mario Bros. Movie”©Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection

That’s an incredible achievement and it’s not even a sequel. Beyond the first “Avatar,” it’s the first non-franchise/non-sequel release in this century to top $500 million. Universal successfully marketed this as a multi-quadrant title, a strategy that other studios will certainly prototype with well-known brands that can add nostalgia on top of its core appeal to kids and families.

At the bottom of this article we list two charts. The first is the 10 highest-grossing animated releases ever in the U.S./Canada, based on grosses reported at the time of their release. The second estimates the numbers if ticket prices for all films were what they are now — adjusted for inflation. The lists are radically different.

“All-time biggest movie” claims are an ongoing issue in box-office reporting. There’s a massive bias toward using unadjusted grosses because it allows 19 of the 20 biggest films to be released in the current century and that’s good for business. Studios love the bragging rights; fans like to see their favorites achieve benchmarks.

More egregious is the denial of film history and the reality distortion.

Above all other categories of film, animation has managed to sustain interest in 20th-century classics. More than any producer, Walt Disney understood their long-term value. His cartoon titles played theaters for limited periods before being withdrawn from circulation. Later they were rereleased as though they were first-run films.

The wisdom of that approach is reflected in the list of actual biggest animated features. Seven of the adjusted top 10, led by “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” were Disney films released before 1970. None of these seven appear among the unadjusted list of the top 200 all-time grossing films. (“The Lion King” as #33 is the only one included).

E.T., Henry Thomas, E. T., 1982. © Universal Pictures/ Courtesy: Everett Collection
“E.T.”©Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection

Animated titles aren’t alone in ignoring reality. Unadjusted, “SMB” now sits as the second highest all-time performer among Universal releases. When it passed “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” the studio made no mention that the average ticket price for the 1983 film was $3.15, not the National Association of Theater Owners’ 2023 estimate of $10.53.

Spoiler alert: “E.T.” is still, by far, the biggest movie Universal ever released. The number of tickets it sold dwarfs the number of tickets sold to “SMB.” With around $1.3 billion in adjusted domestic gross, “E.T.” is #4 of all time. On this more accurate basis, with “Jaws” at #7, the studio has two of the top seven hits in history. No studio has more, though 20th Century Fox and Paramount also have two each.

Unadjusted, the best Universal can do is #10 for “Jurassic World.” If it cares about bragging rights, stick with the adjusted chart.

All hail “SMB.” But don’t fall for distorted reality.

Top 10 Grossing Animated Films (unadjusted)

  • 1. Incredibles 2 (2018) $608.6 million

  • 2. The Super Mario Bros. Movie (2023) $526.0 million

  • 3. Finding Dory (2016) $486.3 million

  • 4. Frozen II (2019) $477.4 million

  • 5. Shrek 2 (2004) $441.2 million

  • 6. Toy Story 4 (2019) $434.0 million

  • 7. The Lion King (1994) $422.8 million

  • 8. Toy Story 3 (2010) $415.0 million

  • 9. Frozen (2013) $401.0 million

  • 10. Finding Nemo (2003) $380.8 million

Top 10 Grossing Animated Films (adjusted for inflation)

  1. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) $1.019 billion

  2. One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961) $932.7 million

  3. The Lion King (1994) $833.1 million

  4. Fantasia (1941) $774.9 million

  5. Incredibles 2 (2018) $697.4 million

  6. The Jungle Book (1967) $687.5 million

  7. Sleeping Beauty (1959) $678.2 million

  8. Shrek 2 (2004) $651.5 million

  9. Pinocchio (1940) $628.9 million

  10. Bambi (1941) $594.6 million

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