When Pixar’s Elemental premiered, it was branded a total flop. But then, somehow, everything seemed to turn around, and the film raked in the dough and was enjoyed by audiences. So what’s the truth about Elemental – Is it a boring misfire or a heartwarming success? And why were people hating on it so much to begin with? Here’s our Take!
Going back to basics doesn’t mean boring
With all of the discussion of Elemental’s maybe-maybe-not floppage, there surprisingly hasn’t been a lot of discussion about the film itself. The relatable story and awe-inspiring visuals were unfortunately overshadowed by the discourse. Still, if we dive in deeper, we can clearly see why the movie ended up resonating with audiences. We find ourselves in Elemental City, a bustling metropolis populated by embodiments of air, earth, fire, and water. Ember Lumen, a fire element, helps her family run their shop, the Fireplace – which her parents worked very hard to set up after immigrating to Elemental City and having to carve out their own place on the fringes of society. When water element Wade Ripple literally bursts into Ember’s life, the star-crossed lovers must fight against the odds, and it seems nature itself, to figure out how to be themselves and be together.
On its surface, this might sound like a pretty well-trod and basic plot, but the film choosing to go back to basics to build the heart of the story is part of the reason it works so well. The humor and danger that can come from elements mixing and clashing has been the stuff of legend for millennia, and here it is used to illustrate a Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner-eque story of two elements that society says shouldn’t mix, coming together to create something beautiful. Wade is a confident and emotional water element who has lived so comfortably in his privilege in Element City that the idea of not being accepted somewhere hasn’t ever even really crossed his mind. Ember, on the other hand, is all too familiar with being stuck on the outside – the fire people have been relegated to the edges of society because of the “danger” they pose to the other elements. The fire people’s story, in particular, draws inspiration from Director and co-writer Peter Sohn’s youth growing up as the child of Korean immigrants in The Bronx in the 1970s.
When Ember’s family shop is threatened with closure due to a leak, Ember and Wade must work through their cultural clashes while working together to fix the leaks that eventually threaten to wipe out the entire city. The fact that they come from two different worlds makes it feel like they’ll never truly be able to connect. But in the end, of course, they find that love is the strongest element of all. And the Lumen family’s familial connection is also just as important as the film’s romance. While Ember does end up sparking true love with Wade, she also solidifies the deep love within her family. While at first, Ember’s parents don’t approve of her choices – of a partner or of going her own way in life – in the end, they come to be proud of the strong fire element Ember has become. And even though she makes the choice not to take over the family business, they’re happy to see her go off to create the life she wants for herself.
The entire film is elevated by the stunning visuals. The Pixar team really used their amazing abilities for good this time around – the animation is expressive and feels alive, but, luckily, very much avoids aiming for creepy photo realism. The animation somehow manages to perfectly walk the line between real life and cartoon, making all of the elements feel real while also still looking fun and lively. Element City itself is an expansive, elemental Manhattan – highlighting both the city’s larger-than-life presence and the tiny, human elements that make it so beloved.
In the end, all of Elemental’s pieces come together to create a relatable, engaging, and human rom-com. The film isn’t perfect, and its elements-as-cultures metaphor does ring a little hollow occasionally. But overall, the film digs down deep to the one thing that bonds us all more than anything: love in all of its many forms. Maybe the idea of finding love in the face of conflict is basic, but that doesn’t mean that it’s boring or that it’s not a story worth telling. And it’s this message of connection (along with the beautiful visuals) that has allowed the film not only to overcome its initial underperformance but to turn into a full-fledged success. But why did the film even flop in the first place?
The film did not start off on the right foot when it came to its release. Reviews were middling at best, with many saying that the film was visually engaging but thematically lacking. There seemed to be a general feeling that the film hadn’t lived up to the deep, feeling nature of past Pixar fare. For decades, the company was known for thoughtful, profound animated films that, while they may have been marketed mostly towards kids, were experiences that people of any age could enjoy – and that would leave everyone with big questions about the world and their place in it. Wall-E grappled with the destruction of the environment, the toll it has on the world and humanity at large, and the great lengths we need to go to to save our planet and ourselves. Up opened with a devastating gut punch before taking us on a journey of self-discovery that showed the importance of finding family and not letting yourself become hardened to the world. Every Pixar film seemed to have some deep, emotional core that audiences really resonated with and would stay with them for years after the fact. But in more recent years, the company has seemingly been failing to clear the high bar it set itself. From The Good Dinosaur to Lightyear, many of Pixar’s more recent films don’t seem to have that same spark as the ones people remembered from the late 90s and early 2000s. 2021’s Encanto was a notable exception, managing to emotionally resonate with audiences, hold its own at the box office during the pandemic, and launch a hit song. But mostly, the company’s recent fare has been all but forgotten nearly as soon as it’s come out. The pandemic worsened this habit, as it led to films being released digital-only, getting thrown into the streaming boneyard before they even had a chance at success. Soul and Turning Red both got caught up in this wave of pandemic-era plan-changing: they were good films that people did actually love once they saw them but had their success truncated by their underwhelming rollouts. And disappointing as this was, it was, of course, understandable that things had to be done differently during the pandemic – the films had to be released direct-to-streaming because audiences couldn’t go to the theaters. But even as the theatrical release cycle has started to return to normal, Disney has still continued to hit snags with its film rollouts. Elemental initially fell victim to this poor decision-making, too.
How the film got caught up in Pixar’s string of flops
There was seemingly minimal promo, with many people not even having heard about the film until they were seeing headlines about it being a failure. There were some tie-ins, like Wade and Ember appearing on American Idol’s season 21 finale to cheer on the winner, and lines of toys and books being created to accompany the film. But overall, Elemental just didn’t go into its opening weekend feeling like a must-see movie event like Pixar films of years past. And to make matters worse, the film premiered the weekend before cultural mega-phenomenon Barbenheimer – the same-weekend premiere of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie and Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer – which had at that point already kept a stranglehold on film media and social media at large for weeks and had only continued to ramp up as those film’s opening weekend approached. Elemental simply got buried under the massive interest those two films were generating and ended up debuting with the second-lowest opening numbers in Pixar’s history. This led to initial reports branding the film a flop – both critically and financially – but Elemental wasn’t down for the count just yet.
While Elemental didn’t receive the same fanfare as Barbenhimer, it did have one thing in common with those films: good legs. It may not have opened to record-breaking numbers, but people did make their way to the theater to see it eventually. As people actually went to see the film, they realized that it wasn’t the boring, paint-by-numbers flop they had been led to expect from reviews, and instead, it was a visually engaging, heartwarming tale that was worth checking out. Word of mouth spread, more people started checking out the film, and the box office numbers kept going up. It may have started out as a flop, but a few weekends in, it had already earned five times its opening weekend box office total.
How it won in the end
The film is not by any means perfect, but it did manage to succeed at a few things audiences have been making it clear they’re hungry for in recent years. First is that it’s visually interesting – after years and years of muddy, gray, sometimes nearly impossible-to-even-see films and TV shows, audiences have been clamoring for light and color. And Elemental hits it out of the park in this respect, on the large and small scale. The overall animation is gorgeous and a treat for the eyes, but the team also made sure not to forget the little things either. There are so many great blink-and-you’ll-miss-them gags happening in the background of scenes that make it clear that the creative team was really thinking deeply about the ins and outs of this world and having fun doing it. Second is that it’s a shocker, not a sequel. In the same way calling Barbie an ‘original idea’ feels kind of odd, it is true that stories about the elements are probably the longest-standing types of stories we have, going back to the beginning of storytelling. But what’s important, and what made these stories so interesting for viewers, is that the creative teams found new and interesting ways to portray these things that have seemingly always been a part of our lives. Elemental takes familiar, well, elements from our world and combines them together into something that resonates with us in a deep way. And finally– it’s heartwarming. Though we certainly love a good drama filled with turmoil, not every film has to leave us emotionally devastated. Elemental is, at its core, a romcom, so the fact that it doesn’t totally dig into the darker elements of its story isn’t necessarily a failure of the narrative but instead just a feature of its genre. A story about overcoming outside pressures and inner strife for love might not be a novel concept, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth telling.
Elemental, with all of its energy and earnestness, found a way to connect with everyone across ages and elements in a way that great Pixar movies have always done. Sure, it has its faults, but the film has an important message that audiences want and need to hear in trying times, reassuring them that if you’re willing to put in the work and take other people’s differing experiences and needs into account, you can build deep connections with those around you. In addition to its lesson on love, Elemental has also taught everyone something important about the film industry itself, as well.
There have been ongoing conversations about the actual conclusions studios and Hollywood at large should draw from the success of Barbie and Oppenheimer, but Elemental’s slow-burn comeback also has some important lessons. While a movie being an obvious home run on opening weekend is certainly great, just because a movie doesn’t have the biggest-ever opening or become the highest-grossing in some metric or another right out the gate doesn’t automatically mean it’s a complete failure. Studios have always placed great importance on box office performance, but in recent years, it’s started to seem like that’s the only thing that matters – who cares about art or even audience engagement as long as you can trick enough people to show up in the first few weeks? Elemental shows that movies can still find their way to audiences through not just advertisements and oversaturation but positive word of mouth. The film also reminds all of us that we shouldn’t always judge a movie by its first impressions. Film critics are still an important part of the media ecosystem and can help us narrow down what to see when we’re confronted with seemingly endless choices, but their opinions aren’t the only thing that matters. If a movie looks interesting to you, always give it a chance – because you never know, it might just spark something great.
The larger message everyone should take from Elemental’s comeback
Lowry, Brian. “‘Elemental’ Was Written off as a Box-Office Flop. Then It Sprouted Legs.” CNN, WarnerMedia, 31 July 2023, https://www.cnn.com/2023/07/31/entertainment/elemental-box-office-legs/index.html