Leah Lewis as Ember and Mamoudou Athie as Wade in Elemental

Pixar Only Has Itself To Blame for Its Latest Box Office Disappointment

After a series of box office disappointments and straight-to-streaming releases, there was hope Elemental would bring Pixar back to the big screen with a bang. Unfortunately, the film has had a rather underwhelming run so far, but still managed to stir up a few controversies along the way. Pixar took a few hits leading up to Elemental, with Onward and Lightyear proving to be costly box office flops. The three films they released in between—Soul, Luca, and Turning Red—all received stellar reviews but were limited to Disney+ due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, Elemental is shaping up to be Pixar’s third major disappointment in a row, as it struggled to earn back its $200 million budget. The reviews aren’t terrible, but they certainly aren’t on par with the stellar reception Pixar films once enjoyed.

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There may be some explanations for the box office performance that are not related to quality. In an interview with Variety, Pixar’s chief creative officer Pete Docter made an interesting point about how Disney+ “trained” viewers to stream films over going to the theater. This was a factor that may have contributed to Lightyear‘s poor performance, too. After three exclusive or dual streaming releases in a row, it wouldn’t be surprising if viewers were content to skip Elemental in theaters with the assurance that they can eventually watch it on Disney+. The economy is another factor to consider, especially since Elemental is the kind of film targeted at families. With inflation and economic uncertainty, families might be forgoing a trip to the theater in favor of streaming or renting.

While some hits to the box office performance were expected, others might have been avoided. Elemental has proven to be a bit controversial due to some problematic story elements and alleged lazy marketing and movie-making on Pixar’s part. Here’s a breakdown of the controversy surrounding Elemental.

Elemental‘s racial allegories and dampened immigrant story

Bernie, Ember, and Cinder Lumen in Elemental
(Pixar)

Elemental has received some criticism for its problematic racial allegories. In the film, the four elements—fire, water, air, and earth—are clearly racial metaphors. On the one hand, Elemental could’ve offered a very compelling discussion of racism. Ember (Leah Lewis)’s parents, Bernie (Ronnie del Carmen) and Cinder (Shila Ommi), immigrated from Fireland to Elemental City. Unfortunately, they find themselves discriminated against for being fire and are largely relegated to living in Fire Town with the other fire elements. However, even Fire Town is unsafe because Elemental City refuses to provide a safe place where all elements can thrive. This premise offers a solid foundation to delve into topics of xenophobia, accessibility, and inclusion.

Instead, Elemental focuses on the eyebrow-raising metaphor of “elements don’t mix.” When a young earth element crushes on Ember, she responds with “elements don’t mix” instead of pointing out that he’s far too young for her. Meanwhile, Ember and Wade (Mamoudou Athie)’s love is “forbidden” since she’s fire and he’s water. It’s not just that these elements hold reservations about mixing, but that mixing could potentially be fatal and result in someone vaporizing or fizzling out. Suggesting biracial relationships are dangerous and representing race as a genuinely hazardous element (like fire) makes Elemental‘s racial allegories problematic, sloppy, and leaves them open to misinterpretation.

Also, the film’s immigration story gets buried amid the troubling allegories and Romeo-and-Juliet love story between Wade and Ember. The immigration plotline is the most interesting one in the film, especially since director Pete Sohn made the film as a tribute to his parents, who immigrated from Korea. He seemed to have a lot to say about the sacrifices immigrants make for their children, the pressure children of immigrants feel, and how non-immigrants often fail to understand their privilege. This story was strong enough to stand on its own, which made it disappointing that it had to share space with a love story and the humorous tale of a girl with a misguided fixer mentality; it was also noticeably absent from marketing.

Pixar’s misleading, offensive, and potentially illegal marketing

A scene from Pixar's animated film, 'Elemental.' Ember, a female-coded fire element and Wade, a male-coded water element are seated at a dinner table across from Wade's mother, a female-coded water element.
(Pixar)

Elemental‘s controversial marketing also seemed to do the film a big disservice. As mentioned above, the immigration plot was oddly left out of teasers and trailers. This arguably made Elemental seem less interesting to viewers. From the trailers, it seems a little too similar to the premise of Zootopia—a world where anthropomorphic elements all live in a metropolis with a female protagonist who pushes herself to follow a certain career path. Disney also oddly chose to prominently include the little tree that likes Ember, despite him only having three lines in the whole film. Elemental‘s marketing made it look uninteresting, silly, and overly familiar by hiding the sole “element” that really makes this film different from Pixar’s other titles. It’s reminiscent of how Disney was accused last year of failing to market Strange World effectively, seemingly setting it up for box office failure.

The marketing for Elemental wasn’t just misleading, but also potentially illegal and offensive. In one instance, the film created a fire hazard at a mall by painting a fake fire hydrant on a wall that could easily be mistaken for a real one during an emergency. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Pixar’s official Twitter account tweeted “Unleash your wildfire side with this Burning Red poster straight from Element City.” Considering that wildfires have been raging through Canada and affecting the air quality across the United States, this was a particularly ill-considered move. Pixar subsequently deleted the offensive tweet, but not before users took screenshots.

Pixar’s lack of innovation

A scene from Pixar's animated film, 'Elemental.' Wade, a male-coded water element walks down a street alongside Ember, a female-coded fire element. They look at each other lovingly.
(Pixar)

One common complaint about Elemental is that it’s simply underwhelming, and it could reflect Pixar’s lack of creativity and flawed movie-making formula. Many viewers who saw Elemental likely walked away thinking it was a cute and enjoyable movie, but maybe not anything special. The more unique aspects are buried, the anthropomorphic premise is getting a little old, and it just seems to be steeped in mediocrity—from its premise to the animation and marketing.

This seems to indicate a lack of innovation and creativity on Pixar’s part. The studio saw that making emotions, cars, and toys talk and have feelings made money, so they decided to do it over again, but with elements. Meanwhile, Pixar is so reliant on its formula that it refuses to even highlight the more unique aspects of its films. The studio almost seems afraid to try anything new, as evidenced by its poor LGBTQ+ representation. While some bigots claimed Elemental was “controversial” because it included Pixar’s first nonbinary character, the only issue with this inclusion was that it is so subtle and underwhelming, marking what feels like the umpteenth time Disney has introduced its first LGBTQ+ character. Pixar can’t commit to representation, and it’s just one example of how this resistance to change is hurting the studio.

What makes the lackluster advertising for Elemental and Strange World so irritating is that we can already predict the absolute field day Pixar’s marketing team will have advertising for Toy Story 5, which absolutely no one asked for, just because the Toy Story franchise has brought in billions and might do the same the fifth time around. The controversies around Elemental all seem to come back to Pixar just treating the film poorly, and it says a lot about the studio’s need to bring innovation and creativity into its process again.

(featured image: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)


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Rachel Ulatowski
Rachel Ulatowski is a Staff Writer for The Mary Sue, who frequently covers DC, Marvel, Star Wars, literature, and celebrity news. She has over three years of experience in the digital media and entertainment industry, and her works can also be found on Screen Rant, JustWatch, and Tell-Tale TV. She enjoys running, reading, snarking on YouTube personalities, and working on her future novel when she's not writing professionally. You can find more of her writing on Twitter at @RachelUlatowski.