Pixar’s “Elemental”: From flop to cinema phoenix

From flop to cinema phoenix - the slow triumph of the Pixar film “Elemental”

Thousands of romantic films have already been made from the saying that two people are like fire and water. But who could illustrate such a story more fantastically than the animation company Pixar? The film “Elemental” celebrated its glittering premiere at the Cannes Film Festival on May 27th and was released in cinemas around the world two and a half weeks later. And turned out to be a lame duck there. Crawl instead of taking off.

In June it grossed just $29.6 million at home in the US. So far, not a single Pixar film started worse – with the exception of the very first film from the then no-name studio. Pixar had produced a veritable flop.

Today, three and a half months later, “Elemental” is at number nine in the 2023 box office charts in the USA. The film is therefore one of the box office hits of 2023. It grossed $500 million worldwide. How does something like that work? When in the cinema the saying goes: A bad start is a lost race.

The slow start wasn’t due to the film itself. The story of the fire girl Ember and the water boy Wade was fiery and lively, was amusing with a touch of melancholy, caused laughter and tears, talked about migration, integration and discrimination and was overflowing with visual ideas.

Even the sequence of scenes at the beginning, in which Ember’s parents Bernie and Cinder Lumen come to the big city Elemental City and try their luck among their own kind, among water, earth and air creatures, and start a business called “Feuerstelle”, has a certain something Pixar something. If the subway brakes, the water people spill over and the fire people have to be careful not to be accidentally extinguished by them. When the air beings board a limp zeppelin, they fill its shell with their pure presence and the journey can begin. 100 minutes of furious fantasy.

Marketing campaign poor, word of mouth overwhelming

“Thanks to the good word of the mouth” – this is what the film website ScreenRant sees as the basis for the “surprising success story” of the new film. A rather poor marketing offensive for the film also contributed to its initial period as a “box office bomb”, as a box office poison.

There were hardly any posters or trailers, and anyone who did notice the film still had no idea what it was actually about. People at Disney were afraid that a love story would turn children off: Yuck, smooch! And kept quiet about it.

Fire and water prove that they can work together

But then the consistently positive to euphoric film reviews and word of mouth would have caused an elementary rise – also worldwide. The ancient love story between opposite partners came close to the old, high Pixar level.

ScreenRant even compared the film to “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” a comedy classic from 1967 starring Sidney Poitier, who belied liberal understandings of diversity as the black fiancé of Katharine Hepburn’s daughter and father-in-law Spencer Tracy. Here fire and water prove that they can work together.

Pixar’s recipe for success since “Toy Story”: tickling the child in all viewers

“Elemental” is beautiful animated film storytelling that for a long time could only be reliably achieved by the house with the desk lamp in the logo. With “Toy Story” (US release on November 22, 1995, in Germany on March 21, 1996), director and Pixar veteran John Lasseter hit the child of all generations out of nowhere: Because everyone had asked themselves what the toy would do when you weren’t in the room with him.

And was also heartbreakingly taught how a toy felt when it was worn out and the attention of its beloved owner turned to a new attraction. Bye, Sheriff Woody, welcome, astronaut Buzz Lightyear!

That was what was unique about the Pixar formula – a fairytale glimpse into mystery. The mysterious coexistence of tiny ants became the animated western “The Big Crawling” (1998); the terrible monsters in the closet that everyone was afraid of as children were actually employed as “scaresters” in “Monster AG” (2001). , nice beings with worries like you and me.

The parents were also looking forward to Pixar films

The filmmakers’ imagination captured the imagination of audiences of all ages. How it works with superheroes was clarified in “The Incredibles”, 2004). Classic underdog themes have always been Hollywood’s thing – but turning a rat into a master chef against all expectations in “Ratatouille” (2007) showed chutzpah.

A super-scared fish and one with no short-term memory embarked on an incredible sea odyssey to save a baby fish from an aquarium in Finding Nemo (2003). Unlike other cinema offerings for children, parents were not only looking forward to their little ones enjoying themselves, but to the film itself.

Two classic films were followed by bad decisions

While Pixar’s parent company Disney, which had been a leader in the field of feature-length animated films since “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937), had primarily produced mediocre films over almost a decade and a half since the very adult historical piece “Pocahontas” (1995), Pixar was now creating real film art : The amorous garbage robot from “Wall-E – The Last One Cleans Up the Earth” (2008) and the journey of a chubby boy scout and an old man, which in “Up” (2009) leads to a house that was hanging from balloons great adventure, are undisputed masterpieces and marked the creative highlights of Pixar’s work.

Then came bad decisions. Because the sequels to “Toy Story” also worked extremely well, old stories were continued. Spin-offs from “Cars,” “Monster Inc.,” “Finding Nemo” and “Incredibles” were released in theaters and were disappointing compared to the original films. The Celtic coming-of-age fairy tale “Merida – Legend of the Highlands” (2012) seemed too serious. In the dinosaur story “Arlo & Spot” (2015) – the first full-length film from “Elemental” director Peter Sohn – the storytelling slipped completely into the banal.

Pixar films were no longer a guarantee of an unforgettable evening

The trust of animation fans was lost, as was the label’s reputation for compelling, completely relaxed originality. In between, touching works such as “Everything is Inside Out” (2015), in which human feelings became characters, as well as “Coco” (2017) and “Soul” (2020), two films about life after death, were repeatedly created. But “Luca” (2021), “Rot” (2022) and most recently the solo for toy astronaut “Lightyear” (2022) seemed arbitrary and loveless. Pixar was now one provider among many, there was no longer any guarantee of an unforgettable evening.

The inconsistent quality and the pandemic caused the floor lamp to flicker

The inconsistent quality was also noticeable at the box office. While the reliable “Toy Story” franchise brought in over a billion dollars in revenue with the fourth episode in 2019, the following film “Onward” (2020) plummeted to a worldwide box office of $142,000 with estimated production costs of $175 to 200 million . A disaster that was followed by three films that ended up streaming in most countries due to the pandemic.

The last of these, “Red,” about a girl who turned into a red panda when stressed, was the economic low point in 2022: $175 million in costs compared to $20 million in revenue. The small, shining floor lamp only seemed to flicker. Which “Elemental” initially confirmed.

“Elemental” is also a success in streaming

The film worked its way up “bit by bit”, as the New York Times also sees it. ScreenRant points out that parallel to this rise there was no competition in the family film sector, apart from the recently released “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse”.

And success breeds success. The Walt Disney Company reported that “Elemental,” which can now be streamed on the video-on-demand portal Disney+, was a hit there from September 13th and beat competitors such as the pseudo-real-life adaptation of “Ariel” and the third installment of Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” behind me. For the DVD business, which is still running, Disney expects to sell 800,000 “Elemental” silver pieces and 1.7 million digital copies.

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What follows from the transition from flop to high flyer at Pixar? The competition is now producing films for half of Pixar’s usual 200 million. “I hope we can continue to provide budgets that allow our artists to deliver the best performances of their lives,” said Pixar creative director Pete Docter, director of Monsters Inc., Upside Down ” and “Soul,” quoted in the “New York Times.” Because that’s always been part of Pixar: the (expensive) brilliance of the animations. The fine individual hairs in the blue fur of “Monster AG” horror Sulley amazed the audience, as did the incredibly real-looking water from “Finding Nemo”.

I hope we can continue to provide budgets that allow our artists to deliver the best performances of their lives.

Pete Docter, creative director at Pixar, in the New York Times

And in this country, of course, the care towards German cinemagoers. If there are special discounts in Papa Bernie’s “Fireplace” in “Elemental”, then the pin on the lapel of the hysterical heroine Ember doesn’t say “Red Dot Sale”, but rather the German word “Schnäppchentag”. In front of the town hall there is a sign with “Rathaus”. Nobody should watch and not understand – that’s always been the case with the good people at Pixar.

Pixar wants to return to its old virtues

Pixar has taken a new look at the projects it is currently working on, says Docter. That they wanted to return to the old virtues, to “what enabled us to appeal to the audience”. Has the triumph of “Elemental” already turned things around? Will the market analysts’ doom and gloom soon turn into a comeback story?

The next Pixar film is already finished. On the film website imdb.de “Elio” doesn’t have a German release date yet, but it will probably be at the beginning of March – that’s when it starts in the USA. And the story of a small, neglected human boy who is believed to be the leader of humanity by the leading alien species has the makings of an instant hit. The marketing is already underway, the cute (and exciting) trailer arouses curiosity.

So the signs are good. As Mama Cinder Lumen says in “Elemental” when the “Fire Pit” is threatened with closure after a burst water pipe in the basement: “We can do it. We’ve done it before.”

Jean Harris

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One thought on “Pixar’s “Elemental”: From flop to cinema phoenix

  1. QlqzzNwr October 8, 2023 at 7:55 pm

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