How Pixar's Marketing Failed "Elemental"
The latest addition to Pixar's catalogue was released in June 2023 in the form of Peter Sohn's Elemental. However, I wouldn't be surprised if you never got around to watching it, or have forgotten about it entirely after only seeing a few ads in your local theater. Despite its gigantic budget of $200 million and coming from the most revered animation studio in history, Elemental is one of the lowest grossing films Pixar has ever released. But please do not think this means Elemental is a bad film, it's actually quite good, the problem lies in how it was introduced to the world...
Making $397.5 million dollars at the box office might seem like a lot of money, but when it comes to Pixar, that number is something to scoff at. Especially when it didn't even make double the budget in terms of profits. With an opening weekend of $29.6 million, Elemental had the second worst opening for Pixar since the original Toy Story back in 1995, its first feature. What makes the failure of Elemental so tragic is that it was directed by Peter Sohn, who also directed The Good Dinosaur back in 2015, meaning that two of the worst performing Pixar films have both come from the same director. Sohn's intention with this movie was to tell the story of his Korean immigrant parents, their perseverance in a country that did not always welcome them, and the struggle between cultures as a first generation citizen. Sohn tells their story, using element city as a backdrop, and using the four elements to represent different cultures: fire, earth, water, and air.
Part of the reason people weren't rushing to buy tickets to Elemental is because it looked like a story they had already seen before. If you were to just review all the advertisements, Elemental bears a striking resemblance to Zootopia, and audiences probably just thought they were going to be spoon-fed the same tolerance metaphor again by the same studio, with humanized elements instead of animals. I can absolutely understand how someone would think Elemental is just Zootopia 2, but that couldn't be farther from the truth. Elemental is a much simpler story than Zootopia, there's no big elaborate crime mystery that needs to be solved, it's a simple love story about balancing your past with your future, and feeling pressure to stay true to your roots even when they are holding you back.
Elemental tells the story of Ember Lumen, the child of two immigrants from Fireland who run a corner store called The Fireplace, which Ember hopes to inherit someday. She has a temper and a does not like to surround herself with any other elements, especially water people due to the horrific treatment her and her family suffered due to prejudice in Element City. Eventually she meets a special water person, Wade, who she eventually falls in love with, despite her reservations and her parents' hatred of water. It's a simple story, and a pretty heavy-handed metaphor for xenophobia, racism, and cultural differences, but overall it's a beautiful story with stunning animation and a lot of heartfelt moments. It's a film about the struggle some first generation citizens have choosing between romantic love and familial acceptance, and frankly...I adored it.
So despite a "Certified Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes, beautiful animation, and an amazing story, why was Elemental such a failure for Pixar? That answer lies in the marketing department. A lot of the advertisements for the film focused on a very small character named Clod, an earth person, who was supposed to be the comic relief. It's clear that Pixar was trying to sell toys and turn another cute, comic relief character into an icon like the Minions or Baby Yoda. I truly believe Elemental would have made the money it deserved if it had spent more of its advertising budget conveying the love story and cultural influences of the film instead of an annoying side character with less than ten lines. A lot of the trailers also made Elemental look like just another iteration of Zootopia.
Due to how little I saw people talking about it, I wasn't expecting much out of Elemental, in fact I was kinda expecting it to be bad, but it wasn't bad, it's actually one of my favorite movies of 2023. Next time, Pixar needs to be much more careful and deliberate about how they advertise their next project so that another amazing story isn't wasted like Elemental.