Film

An Elemental problem at the heart of Pixar

Not only is Elemental another example of Pixar's diminishing returns, it speaks of Disney's troubled ethos

Animated illustration of characters Wade, Ember and Ember's mother brook

Wade (voiced by Mamoudou Athie), Ember (Leah Lewis) and Wade’s mother, Brook (Catherine O’Hara). Image: Disney/Pixar

“Thank you to everyone who saw Elemental in theatres this weekend,” tweeted Cat Hicks, a directing animator at Pixar. “It’s a rough time for Pixar… I’ve seen a lot during my 15 years here, but this is definitely the weirdest time thus far.” Elemental, which imagines a bustling metropolis inhabited by nature’s elements, had just had the worst opening weekend in the US of a Pixar film under Disney’s 17-year ownership of the studio.

Pixar released three other original films over the pandemic, all on Disney+, and the studio’s new digital home is likely why families didn’t show up in cinemas. Elemental comes at the point where executives have realised that going “all in” on streaming isn’t financially viable, especially when the punishing and unstable working conditions created by streaming culture have triggered a strike from the Writers Guild of America. For its part, Disney has told striking writers that they are contractually obligated to break the strike, adding to its rich, detailed history of union busting and worker intimidation.

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Disney is also getting pushback for the awful working conditions it put on visual effects studios, one of the only non-unionised sectors in Hollywood. Meanwhile, creatives behind Secret Invasion, a new Disney+ series, quietly shared that their title sequence was made using AI, another example of Marvel Studios choosing not to credit and compensate comic artists. Like a cackling fairytale villain, Disney is consolidating its corporate power against the people making its products. As striking Disneyland Paris workers said, “We’re the ones who make the magic.”

Elemental is also about workers – or at least, it uses a labour culture as shorthand to ground its fantastical characters and setting. Ember (Leah Lewis) is a young fire woman poised to take over her father’s fire store, and struggles to voice her own career anxieties under her family’s expectations to continue catering to their community in the segregated Element City. Meanwhile, a city inspector and privileged water person, Wade (Mamoudou Athie), endangers the store’s future with a slew of bureaucratic citations that can only be fixed with some classic Pixar humanism.

This isn’t unfamiliar territory. Throughout Pixar’s golden era (from Toy Story to the second before Cars 2 premiered), characters would perform unconventional duties with human-like professionalism: being a child’s toy, monsters as blue-collar energy workers, a heroic power couple. It’s fun watching scary monsters clock in and out, or toys acting with military precision and parent-like urgency; juxtapositions like these are what made the first 15 years of the animation giant so memorable.

But the past decade has been a period of stagnation for Pixar, relying on unimaginative sequels and recurring tropes to keep the brand afloat. Inside Out, which personified conflicting emotions inside a preteen girl’s head, felt like a breath of fresh air, but when the existential Soul used the same wellness-centre workplace aesthetic for its metaphysical world, it felt unimaginative. The Mexican folklore-inspired Coco opened the door for Pixar’s culturally specific fantasy stories, but the spiritual beyond still referenced airport security and border checkpoints. Despite being set in an expansive fantasy world, 2020’s Onward still chose to show it as a mundane suburbia. This problem has spread to Disney Animation Studios; Elemental feels at points a carbon copy of Disney’s animal metropolis film Zootopia, borrowing wholesale its moments of office comedy and muddled discrimination metaphors.

It’s clear that Elemental is using labour, urban living and bureaucracy to bridge a fantastical world with our own, just as Monsters Inc, Inside Out and Soul did to make their non-human characters relatable. But not only has the lengthy use of these touchstones made them tired, but the audience’s attitude towards work has shifted in recent years. OK, maybe Elemental’s target demographic (infants) haven’t become radicalised, but its depiction of an urban, discriminatory capitalism come at a point where you can’t get away with observing that “work sucks” if you have an audience who are becoming increasingly itchy to do something about it. Elemental insists it understands the struggles of the diverse working class, despite the fact these have never been of interest to those producing the film.

This isn’t entirely Pixar’s fault – it is, after all, also a victim of Disney’s anti-art and anti-worker ethos – but the studio’s method of accessing the fantastical through models of labour feels tactless during one of the most punishing times for creatives. What started as a clever, charming way to empathise with creatures and concepts foreign to us now reveals not just the blandness of Pixar and the shamelessness of its parent company, but how confident it is that audiences will keep accepting its message.

Elemental is in cinemas from 7 July

Rory Doherty is a critic and screenwriter

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.To support our work buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play

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