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The latest feature from Pixar Animation Studios, “Elemental,” about a fire creature and a water creature who fall in love, earned less than thirty million dollars at the U.S. box office during the Juneteenth long weekend—the worst opening in the company’s history. To put that number in context, “Onward,” the Pixar movie that previously held this unwanted record, earned forty-six million inflation-adjusted dollars in its opening weekend, in March, 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic was already beginning to lock down public spaces.
Postmortems of the “Elemental” disaster have focussed on the film’s lack of established I.P. (which buoyed the sensational recent box-office performances of “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” and “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse”) and on the fact that three Pixar movies of recent years—“Soul” (2020), “Luca” (2021), and “Turning Red” (2022)—bypassed theatres and went straight to the Disney+ streaming platform, which helped to set certain viewing habits in place. “In fairness,” one analyst told Variety, “the shifting of consumer behavior is less on the Pixar team itself and more on the former Disney leadership that siphoned three of the animation hub’s films to streaming as part of a broader strategy.” My own reporting supports this thesis. My six-year-old son has spent countless hours watching Pixar movies at home and beelined to a theatre last summer to see his old pal Buzz Lightyear’s movie, “Lightyear,” on its opening weekend. But he refused to accompany me to a morning screening of “Elemental,” preferring to “wait until it’s streaming.”
I wish I could say that “Elemental” is a new Pixar classic unfairly ground up in the gears of current market realities. The movie is set in Element City, the Manhattan-ish home to anthropomorphized embodiments of the four elements. Ember, the short-tempered daughter of hardworking immigrants, is training to inherit her father’s bodega; Wade, the emotionally labile scion of boho Wasps, is a city health inspector who meets Ember by way of a flooding pipe. The script, which tosses together ingredients from “Zootopia,” “Turning Red,” and “Frozen II,” suffers from a remedial echolalia—Ember reminds us that she must take over the bodega and fulfill her father’s dreams at narrow intervals, which is helpful if you are half watching a movie in your living room while scrolling your phone, but less apt for a big-screen experience. Especially coming from a studio that used to be so terrifyingly fastidious about its world-building, the internal logic of Element City is wobbly at best—e.g., Ember can burn instantly through a chain-link fence but can sit safely in a movie-theatre seat. And the film’s aspirations as a parable of xenophobia and cross-cultural rapprochement might have had a better shot at landing if Ember didn’t so frequently set the creatures and things around her on fire.
A running joke in “Elemental” that evolves into a grand theme (spoilers forthcoming) is that Wade cries a lot; indeed, he’s crying when we meet him. His family even has a parlor game in which they try to make one another cry by summoning old memories or improvising sad scenarios. Ember, who rarely cries, envies Wade’s ability to forge easy, strong connections with others; his tears, she knows, are part of the current that sweeps them along. When, at the movie’s climax, Wade appears to die by evaporation, owing to the sweltering heat in the bodega, Ember revives him by using the parlor game—with stories and avowals of love, she compels the beaded water gathered on the hearth’s ceiling, which is all that remains of Wade, to cry. In short, Wade is killed by his love’s essence—fire—and saved by his own essence, water. The tears are his person, his being, and his deliverance.
As the scene cohered, it struck me that all those (re)generative tears are a metaphor for what Pixar has lost. They are what Pixar wants from us and can no longer have.
It used to be that if you wanted a good cry, you could order one from Pixar. Not every movie, but often enough, starting with a sequence in “Toy Story 2” (1999) in which Jessie, a cowgirl doll, is discarded to the strains of “When She Loved Me,” by Sarah McLachlan, whose soprano turns the interlude into the emotional equivalent of an A.S.P.C.A. appeal for lost toys. In the genuinely shocking climax of “Toy Story 3” (2010), Jessie and the other toys clutch one another, saying silent goodbyes as they’re apparently about to tumble into a landfill incinerator; the scene primes the pump for the film’s bittersweet ending, in which the toys’ kid, Andy, en route to college, gives them all away. In “Coco” (2017), everybody falls apart when the ancient matriarch of the title remembers the words to “Remember Me,” the song that her father wrote for her before he died young. Perhaps most famously, “Up” (2009) encapsulates the long, happy, but tragedy-tinged marriage of Carl and Ellie, a pair of thwarted world explorers, into about four minutes of wordless screen time, scored to an earworm waltz-time refrain that moves from jaunty brass and strings to a lone, bereft piano. I first saw “Up” in 3-D at a press screening, in New York City, a few days before its theatrical release. When Carl, newly widowed, climbs alone up the steps of his house and disappears through the front door, what seemed like half the audience took off their plastic 3-D glasses to wipe their eyes.
In the fifteen years between the first and third “Toy Story” movies, Pixar otherwise made nothing but original films, a creative spree that peaked with the end-of-the-two-thousands hat trick of “WALL-E” (2008), “Up,” and “Toy Story 3.” Pixar’s movies were frequently dark and death-haunted—they were marketed to kids but not entirely made for them. (Pixar circa 2008 would have absolutely crushed the ending of “Elemental.” We would still be recovering today.) “Finding Nemo” (2003) opens with the murder of the clown-fish title character’s mother and siblings. “WALL-E,” which many critics consider to be Pixar’s best film, was an affable nightmare of ecological collapse and grotesque species regression.
Then, perhaps unsurprisingly, the studio began surrendering to sequelitis. “Cars” (2006), the only first-wave Pixar original that has no fans above the age of twelve, got a sequel. “Monsters, Inc.” (2001) got a sequel. “Finding Nemo” got a sequel. “The Incredibles” got a sequel. “Cars” got another sequel. Still, Pixar’s fans could imagine that the studio, which Disney acquired in 2006, was striking some kind of necessary corporate bargain, keeping its production pipeline filled with preëstablished I.P. while still investing in originals such as the somewhat underrated Scottish-folklore saga “Brave” (2012) or “Inside Out” (2015), which personifies the emotions of a tween girl named Riley. The latter film received some of the most ecstatic reviews in Pixar’s history.
“Inside Out” ’s potency as a tearjerker was central to its swooning critical reception, positioning the film as exemplary of the entire lachrymose Pixar project. “The youngest viewers will have a blast, while those older than Riley are likely to find themselves in tears,” A. O. Scott wrote, in a beautiful Times review, which praised the film as “a defense of sorrow.” Both Vulture and the Washington Post asked readers which scene made them cry the hardest. Slate’s film critic, Dana Stevens, noted that “Inside Out” marked the first time that she and her daughter had ever wept together over a work of art. When the film was released, I had recently had my first child, and I was excited for Pixar to join forces with postpartum hormonal anarchy to stomp all over my limbic cortex. In “Inside Out,” Riley’s (very nice) parents are often oblivious to her struggles, and they even condition her (however unintentionally) to repress her emotions, with harmful effects. What a stroke of good fortune, then, that a Pixar blockbuster could be perfectly timed to double as a narcissistic projection of my anxieties and fears about all the ways that I would inevitably fail my precious baby daughter! This movie was made to destroy me, specifically, and I couldn’t wait.
It didn’t happen. Not when Riley cried in front of her whole class, not when she wept with her contrite and understanding parents toward the movie’s end, not even upon the sacrificial death of Riley’s imaginary friend, the chimerical Bing Bong. (“And he went out like a real G,” E. Alex Jung noted, tearfully and accurately, in Vulture.) The sheepish alienation of sitting through “Inside Out” amid the static of my fellow-theatregoers’ sniffles and nose honks must have been what Data from “Star Trek” felt like all the time. I understood, intellectually, that the movie was a visual marvel, a conceptual miracle, an audacious and openhearted synthesis of all that we know about cognitive development, the neural mechanisms of emotional dysregulation, the dark attics of childhood, the melancholy of memory. But I was more moved by Scott’s and Stevens’s reviews of the movie than by the movie itself. It felt synthetic, schematic, overdetermined. It tasted fake. And that flavor, I think, has infused much of what Pixar has produced ever since (with the conspicuous, glorious exception of “Coco,” perhaps Pixar’s last great movie). It helps to explain the creative and commercial rut that the studio finds itself in now.
In the studio’s first decades, Pixar movies took place in the material world; they concerned toys, robots, cars, fish. “Up,” the studio’s most gerontocratic work, had a little kid and a bunch of talking dogs. Pixar’s stories were elaborate in their particulars but easy to grasp in their broadest outlines. The first three “Toy Story” movies are about what happens when a boy outgrows his toys. “WALL-E” is about a robot on a post-apocalyptic planet. “Up” is about an old man whose house flies away. “Cars” is about cars. “Inside Out” is about a girl who has trouble adjusting when she moves to a new city, yes, but the real main characters are her emotion-regulation system as personified by five discrete feelings—Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear—who operate a literal control booth of the mind and help to curate Riley’s “core memories,” which are manifested in glowing orbs that themselves engender five different memory palaces, referred to as personality islands, which are demolished in the course of the movie’s events (they collapse in slow motion above Riley’s “memory dump,” the resting place of the valiant Bing Bong) by way of magic vacuum tubes and a mishandling of the orbs and whatnot. The high-conceptual calisthenics reach maximum b.p.m. inside the Abstract Thought section of Riley’s mind, where Joy, Sadness, and Bing Bong descend through the stages of nonobjective fragmentation, deconstruction, and two-dimensionalization, just because they can.
In retrospect, it seems clear that “Inside Out” was when Pixar’s Silicon Valley brain trust began to peel off from the universe and float into the metaverse, borne aloft by a kind of totalizing cleverness. It was the moment when the studio’s narrative and emotional complexities became convolutions, when it began anthropomorphizing concepts instead of creatures, and when its big cry scenes started to feel like they were scripted by large language models.
“Onward,” for one, about two elf brothers on a byzantine, Dungeons & Dragons-like quest to resurrect their dead father, contrives to reanimate only the bottom half of Dad for much of its run time, then withholds the extremely brief fulfillment of the quest from both the viewer and one of the brothers; the movie isn’t sad so much as it’s dismaying and vaguely sadistic. “Soul,” which features Pixar’s first Black protagonist, is a body-switching comedy-drama that moves between life, the afterlife, and the before-life; in a brilliant essay for The New Yorker, Namwali Serpell identifies the disturbing ways in which “Soul” toys with minstrelsy, as well as the incongruous loneliness, the solitude, that seem central to the movie’s E.S.T.-session notions of ensoulment. In Black culture, Serpell writes, the word “soul” is “used to signify not just an individual unit but also an indivisible substrate, a communal energy.” Yet the souls of “Soul” are untethered, not fully inhabited, not ethereal but simply weightless. They are a math problem. They present as if they’ve been run through Riley’s Abstract Thought mind machine.
The strenuously high-concept premise of “Elemental” is emblematic of latter-day Pixar. Yet it is not as disaffecting a viewing experience as is “Onward” or “Soul” (or, for that matter, “Lightyear,” a throwaway meta joke distended to feature length). “Elemental” doesn’t grate as much partly because it doesn’t make the same lunges at profundity, and partly because its shagginess can be endearing, or at least can seem more plausibly like the work of human hands.
Still, “Elemental” is done no favors by the short film that precedes it in theatres, a crooked little trinket from Pixar’s I.P. recycling plant. “Carl’s Date,” which brings back Carl from “Up” and his talking dog, Dug, has two jokes, both of which it beats into the dirt. But it also has the voice of the great Ed Asner, in one of his final performances. It is not “Up,” but it looks like it. And we all know what happens when we see “Up.” Carl gazes at his wedding photo and promises Ellie that he’ll be home from his date by ten—eleven, at the latest. That diabolical waltz-time piano line strolls in. My response was almost Pavlovian: I didn’t cry, but I remembered crying. Some memory palaces never crumble into the sea, or melt into air. ♦