Like the plot of any Pixar movie, the premiere of Elemental had plenty of ups and downs. In fact, between poor reviews out of the film’s Cannes premiere and erratic box office numbers, the underdog story of Elemental could be a Pixar movie in and of itself.
Although Peter Sohn’s tale of when fire met water got off to a slow start, Elemental has become a major success story. The film’s Cannes debut scored a dismal 58 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, making it one of Pixar’s worst ranked films, but the movie now holds a fresh 70 percent. Similarly, after stumbling during its opening with a box office debut of $29.5 million (weak, especially for a $200 million budget), the film spent all summer climbing into the global top 10 of 2023, where it now sits at number nine with a near $500 million haul.
“There’s such a sincere [desire] that you—and of course, any filmmaker, any of the crew that worked on it—just want a film to connect,” Sohn tells The Daily Beast’s Obsessed over Zoom. “So much of that crew really believed in the movie. It was disheartening and very emotional for people to discount the movie before even seeing it.”
Elemental’s rebound with critics and audiences is particularly special to Sohn because of his background. Even though it initially floundered in the States, Elemental was a smash hit in Korea, where it became the biggest foreign film of the year. Sohn’s parents are from Korea. Elemental is all about honoring the history of one’s parents. The film follows Ember (Leah Lewis), a fire girl who wants to take over her family’s convenience store. Her father is too hard to impress, so Ember gets sidetracked when she falls in love with adorkable water guy Wade (Mamoudou Athie).
As Elemental is now available to stream on Disney+ and VOD this weekend—as well as 4K Ultra-HD, Blu-Ray, and DVD formats on Sept. 26—Sohn sat down to discuss Pixar’s return to theaters following the pandemic, the company’s unpredictable box office numbers, and whether or not that Cannes premiere was a mistake.
This was one of the first Pixar movies to have a big theatrical release after the pandemic. How did that decision pan out?
It was a roller coaster ride, to be frank. When Lightyear came out, everyone was expecting it to do better than it had done, just because it was connected to Toy Story. But there were clear misses. I don’t know if it didn’t connect to the audience in the way that they thought it was going to. It was really confusing in that way. So, when we were talking about how this movie was going to be released—it was just so busy. June was such a crazy month for the movie to come out. When it came out that first weekend, it was really bad. It was, like, the worst performance weekend ever. It was just like, “Wow, this is the way this is going to go on.”
There was a lot of social media noise about that. As it went on, there were DMs and messages like, “Oh, I saw the film, I really loved it.” It sort of perked up. Then, there were emails on the box office that were like, “It’s still hanging on! There’s something going on in Korea, or in France, or something.” It just kept going. That has been the wildest ride I’ve ever been a part of, to be honest. And especially with Korea, my parents are from Korea. I’ve had so many guesses as to why—but it was so explosive there. That has been so moving. All we wanted to do was honor our parents.
Why do you think the box office played out the way it did?
There are so many, so many different ways. There are different factors, the loudest one being Disney+. How much did it hurt us to have Pixar films [go to streaming]? Or was it just that we were in a crowded world where there’s also the Spider-Verse film—it’s an amazing movie [note: Sohn voices Ganke, Miles Morales’ roommate]—and we were going up against The Flash that same weekend. There were all these movies, all these films that would be more interesting than our film. There’s just no way for me to even understand it other than that it was really rough.
There’s speculation, like, did people see all those other films that they wanted to see? A ticket today is a lot more expensive than it has been before. By the time people finish seeing the films that they want to see, did they then start picking up with us? Was the slow rollout for Elemental internationally because there wasn’t a day and date where it all opened up at once? Then there’s the concept of word of mouth, that three letter acronym [WOM] has been thrown around so much in the last few months. It’s been overwhelming for me to really understand the meaning of it. Someone likes the film enough to just recommend it to someone else? That small little thing really helped us out.
The movie premiered at Cannes. What was that experience like for you?
When it got into the festival, because Pixar movies had [premiered] at Cannes before, it was just an amazing honor. Going over there, showing the film, it was really beautiful. The audience, they really connected to the movie. It was an out of body experience to be sure. I’m in animation, and you don’t ever expect to exist in that world [of Cannes]. But then the mixed reviews coming out of it were disheartening. [Eventually], it started picking up to a certain degree. Again, another roller coaster! Every aspect about this film has been really extreme.
Do you think Cannes ended up being the right decision for Elemental?
I’ve gone back and forth on it. So much of it was an amazing experience. Those early reviews, how much did they hurt the film? I don’t know, but it wasn’t great. That’s for sure. But trying to get an awareness of the movie is the thing that you want to do the most, because it’s such a crowded field. You want to find ways to differentiate from all the other movies. The intent of it seemed right, because you want that [as opposed to] just another billboard on a street. Perhaps this, being the last film there—was everyone tired? I don’t know. I can’t make any excuses for any of it. It was a valuable experience for me.
Elemental was the most popular foreign film in Korea this year. What does that mean to you?
It started off with these emails, like I was saying earlier, but then, my family members from there were talking about it. At a certain point—how an entire country embraced the movie is something that I don’t know if I’ll ever experience [again]. I’ve never experienced anything like that before. It was incredible. Why it means so much to me is my parents—they’re both Korean. That is the country that they grew up in and were born in. I grew up [in America].
This whole film was about trying to honor our parents, and all those sacrifices they’ve made for us. They both passed away during the making of this film. There’s some connection for me, emotionally, [seeing] the country of my parents embrace [this] film after they passed away. It overwhelms me with gratitude and deep respect. I don’t know, it’s still crazy to think about. But it’s given me a sense of pride that is new for me. There’s always pride in the work, but now, there’s pride in a part of my identity.
Now that we’re talking about emotions, let’s get into Carl’s Date. I know you have a close relationship with the movie Up, so how did you feel knowing that the final story was going to be attached to Elemental?
It’s beautiful, because it’s full circle. My first short was put onto Up. The first one I had done was Partly Cloudy, which was attached to the first reel of that film. To have [Carl’s Date] attached, it’s this full circle thing that I find very beautiful, because the way Bob [Peterson] directed that was very emotional for me. I really loved how there was so much of Bob in there, that charm, the humor, and then the emotion. Bob is someone that I’ve worked with for a long time and absolutely love, so it’s the icing on the cake.
How does the animation industry feel now compared to when Up initially came out, just over 10 years ago, in terms of saturation of the market and the success of films?
It’s a very gray area. There are both pros and cons of it all. I love the diversity, I love the expanse of all the different styles of animation—not just looks, but in terms of having stories that are for adults and stories that are more family friendly. Having the full gamut, that’s been really inspiring.
But at the same time, yes, there’s a lot of material that’s out there. It’s much harder to navigate. I don’t mean as a filmmaker, I mean just as a person in the world. There’s so much media. To really try to inhale it all is a difficult challenge. But as a filmmaker, I am very excited to see how the art form is being pushed in the myriad of ways that it is right now.
As we’re talking about diversifying stories, let’s talk about Elemental’s non-binary character, Lake (Ava Hauser). What’s the backstory of that character, and what did you make of the response to them?
We’re just trying to reflect our lives. Hopefully, the character will connect to folks. The idea of this whole film has been about how diversity helps us become stronger and enriches our lives, like having water and fire together. It’s been a theme that goes on with every character, on top of Lake and [their girlfriend] Ghibli (Maya Aoki Tuttle).
I don’t want to make a message movie, by any means. I just really want to reflect the world that I know, a film that has gateways for everyone. It’s about opening doorways. I feel like that’s the luckiness of getting to make a movie like this. Growing up, the movies that I really appreciated were films that allowed me to connect to something where [I could] feel a little bit more seen.
Now that Elemental is going to be available for home viewing on Disney+ and in other formats, what’s your favorite tiny detail in the animation that audiences should pause and pay attention to?
One of the small little nuggets that was so funny—and I didn’t know what was happening until later—was that in the crowds, animators added this little backstory of two background characters. In the beginning of the film, when you go into Element City, you’ll notice them for the first time. Then, in another sequence later, that same couple will be on a date. You’ll see them go together, holding hands on a date. Then, in another sequence, you’ll see one of them proposing. There’s this little storyline of love going on in the background.
I didn’t see that! And what about the classic Pixar Easter eggs, are there any that viewers should hunt for?
There’s a character from Elio that’s in there. Hidden, there’s Dug from Up, but they’ve removed his fur and replaced it with grass. I don’t know where he is! They told me he’s in there. I’ve been looking for him and he’s a hard one to find.
Someone reading this right now is going to have to tell us where he is.
Yes! Of course, the Pizza Planet truck is in this movie. There are so many little Easter eggs that the teams put in that are really fun.
In other interviews, you’ve mentioned that Elemental has parallels to your life. What is it like, then, to see so many people talking about how the story resonated with them?
More than anything, I want the crew to connect to it. It does parallel my life, but in pieces. It was so much of the crew. So much of all these tremendous artists were giving a piece of themselves to the movie. So much of my job was trying to put that in and honor it. When the film connects in that way, I hope the crew feels it too. No one person can make anything like this.
The luckiest thing about getting to work at Pixar is the fact that you get to work with hundreds of artists that love what they’re doing and are at a level that is just very inspiring. When they all come together into this orchestra while making the music that is this movie, you want them to glow with pride.
What are you most excited about in Pixar’s future?
What’s so fun about this place is that there are all of these projects that are all happening at the same time. Getting to see where Inside Out 2 is at, getting to see where Elio is at, and all the tremendous work that’s going on in there. It’s been truly inspiring, so much that you just want to help them. You want to go, “Let me get in on this!” But more than anything, it’s been wanting to help all of the artists as they’re making their next [stories] right now.