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Elemental’s Unexpected Success Raises Questions About Its Journey From Failure to Popularity

The headlines were murderous.

Pixar, once unable to do no wrong in the eyes of film critics and ticket buyers, had misfired so immensely at the box office that its future as a cultural force was in doubt. Pixar’s creative spark had apparently blown out — poof.

“Elemental,” the movie in question, has since made those insta-obituaries look rather foolish.

An opposites-attract love story and parable about following your dreams, “Elemental” arrived to $29.6 million in domestic ticket sales in June — the worst opening in Pixar history, by a mile. Little by little, however, the $200 million film became a hit, collecting nearly $500 million worldwide. For the year to date, “Elemental” ranks No. 9 on the list of top-grossing films, ahead of Marvel’s latest “Ant-Man” sequel.

Moreover, “Elemental” has provided the Walt Disney Company, which owns Pixar, with one of the biggest streaming hits in its history. The movie arrived on Disney+ on Sept. 13 and had garnered 60 million views through Sunday, far surpassing results for Disney films like “The Little Mermaid” and “Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 3” for the same periods of availability, according to the company.

“I had no idea what ‘Elemental’ was about, but we decided to watch it as a family because I kept hearing good things,” said Rahela Nayebzadah, who lives in suburban Vancouver, Canada, and has two sons, ages 7 and 4. “The kids have been watching it nonstop ever since.”

Disney also expects to sell about 800,000 “Elemental” DVDs worldwide. About 1.7 million people will buy a digital copy through iTunes, Amazon, Google Play and other online stores.

Predictably, Pixar executives are doing cartwheels. But the “Elemental” turnaround does not vanquish questions about the studio as much as raise new ones.

In a postpandemic, streaming-oriented movie marketplace, is the box office ceiling for original animated films simply lower? Pixar originals used to reliably take in more than $500 million worldwide — sometimes a lot more, including “Coco,” which collected $1 billion in 2017, after adjusting for inflation, and “Inside Out,” which sold an inflation-adjusted $1.1 billion in 2015.

And if that is the case — if Disney+ has eaten into Pixar’s theatrical audience — will Pixar need to spend substantially less? “Elemental” cost roughly $200 million to make, not including marketing. To compare, NBCUniversal’s competing Illumination Animation spent half as much to make its most-recent original movie, “Sing,” in 2016.

Pixar will know more in March, when it releases “Elio,” an original comedic adventure about an 11-year-old boy who gets inadvertently beamed into space and mistaken as Earth’s galactic ambassador. (Pixar’s sibling studio, Walt Disney Animation, will also provide clues later this year, when its “Wish,” an original musical, arrives in theaters.)

“I hope we can continue to be able to have budgets that allow our artists to do the best work of their lives,” Pete Docter, Pixar’s chief creative officer, said in a Zoom interview. Hollywood as a whole needs to adjust its business models for the streaming era, he noted. “We’ve had an amazing opportunity to have the kind of budgets that allow us to really flex our creative muscles.”

Pixar and Disney have spent a lot of time trying to understand the chilly initial response to “Elemental,” Mr. Docter said. For a start, he said, Disney had undercut Pixar as a big-screen force by using its films to build the Disney+ streaming service. Starting in late 2020, Disney debuted three Pixar films in a row online, bypassing theaters altogether. Those films were “Soul,” “Turning Red” and “Luca.”

“There has been an overall shift in viewing habits as a result of the pandemic, but it’s also specific to Disney+,” Mr. Docter said. “We’ve told people, ‘Hey, all of this is going to be available to you on Disney+!’”

Although not saying so directly, Mr. Docter also indicated that Pixar had perhaps drifted too far from its storytelling roots.

In recent years, Pixar has allowed filmmakers like Peter Sohn, who made “Elemental,” to explore stories that are more personal. (Mr. Sohn’s immigrant parents inspired his film.) Yet many of Pixar’s biggest original successes, including “Toy Story” in 1995 and “Monsters, Inc.” in 2001, have grown from more universal concepts — “ideas that we all carried around as kids,” as Mr. Docter put it.

What if my toys come to life when I leave the room? What if there are monsters in my closet?

“I always felt that ‘Elemental’ would speak to a lot of people, and I’m so happy it has,” said Mr. Doctor, whose credits as a director include “Inside Out,” “Up” and “Monsters, Inc.” “But we have also taken another look at the projects we’re working on now. What are the kinds of films we want to be making? I really think I want to double down on what allowed us to speak to audiences to begin with.”

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