ELEMENTAL: Pixar Seeks to Re-establish Theatrical Credentials With High-Concept Spectacle
Below is a spoiler-free editorial assessment of the footage, concept art and making-of details shared with journalists. Story points are under embargo and will not be addressed.
Pixar, for over two decades, pulled off the impossible in the landscape of mainstream Hollywood filmmaking.
It combined prestige and popular appeal in a way no other studio could manage, its deeply-felt, imaginative stories commanding breathless critical acclaim, as well as approbation from the paying public. Its coffers were lined with awards and honors alongside dollars and bofo box office. And then came the pandemic.
The once mighty institution suffered alongside the rest of the major Hollywood studios, and just as it had scaled greater heights than any of them, it was stunningly humbled more than most. Only two out of its last five films made it to theaters -- Onward (2020) and Lightyear (2022) -- both box office bombs. There were bright spots in the form of the broadly appreciated Soul (2020), Luca (2021) and Turning Red (2022), but, crucially, all three went directly to streaming on Disney Plus, parent company Walt Disney’s flagship platform.
Perhaps we have arrived at a juncture where the public has learned to expect a new Pixar film on streaming rather than theatrically. It could maybe explain the underperformance of Lightyear in theaters -- part of the Toy Story franchise, no less -- the gleaming jewel in Pixar’s crown.
This is all about to change with the upcoming release of Elemental on June 16. Based on advance footage and concept art shared with select journalists, Elemetal looks to be one of the most visually elaborate films the studio has ever put out. Only a gigantic theatrical screen would do justice to the scale of this production.
It is redemption not just for Pixar but also for director Peter Sohn. Elemental is Sohn’s second feature film after The Good Dinosaur (2015), which Sohn inherited rather than developed from the ground up. It was a deeply troubled production with several changes in story and crew, and ultimately was a box office disappointment.
Elemental, though, is nobody's hand-me-downs and is actually a deeply personal statement from the Korean-American Sohn, who is essentially portraying his own life experiences in the film. The Fabelmans (2022) by Steven Spielberg it is not but it is close.
Key story elements are directly inspired by Sohn’s immigrant experience, including his parents' move to America and attempts to acclimatize in the late 60s and early 70s to a foreign culture. His parents eventually opened a grocery story in the Bronx in New York City, the American dream come true, and also an element that finds deep resonance in the film’s storyline. Finally there’s Sohn's cross-cultural relationship -- his marriage to a white woman -- that also serves as a point of inspiration.
These elements contribute to the deeply-felt streak, always present in the best that Pixar has to offer, and will undoubtedly affect audiences. The best of Pixar has also been visually ambitious; one thinks back to the screen-filling worlds created in Wall-E (2008), Coco (2017) and the likes.
Elemental is all of that and then some, and is handily the most visually complex film Pixar has ever attempted. Sohn illustrated that with a staggering stat: the number of computer servers used on Toy Story (1995) were 294, 672 for Monsters Inc. (2001), 923 for Finding Nemo (2003) and 151,000 for Elemental.
Sohnn noted some of the most complex water effects took over 10,000 hours of rendering time to render one frame. The level of detail and verisimilitude packed into every frame is so astounding that it totally checks out that this is the most computationally-complex film Pixar has made.
As befitting a tale about immigration and cross-cultural experiences, Sohn proudly noted the crew list for the film is also a melting pot of diversity. Similarly, for the voice cast, eschewing the usual practice of casting movie stars, the lead roles have been handed to Leah Lewis and Mamoudou Athie, upcoming diverse talent handed an opportunity to lead a major Hollywood production costing hundreds of millions of dollars.
Are families willing to trek back to theaters to watch animated event films? Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Strange World (2022) bombed but rival Illumination has stunned the industry with several post-pandemic blockbusters: Sing 2 (2021), Minions: The Rise of Gru (2022) and The Super Mario Bros. Movie (2023).
Pixar will be hoping that Elemental will perform more like the recent Illumination films rather than the recent Pixar films theatrically. It’s definitely coming to the game, locked and loaded and in mean form, ready to deliver a visual spectacle that can only be fully appreciated on the big screen.
Elemental will release June 16, 2023, only in movie theaters.