Regardless of your thoughts on the film, there’s no denying that Brave’s marketing was a work of genius. So much was hidden in secrecy and it made Brave seem like such a high fantasy, like Disney and Pixar had this incredible magical world they couldn’t reveal too much of in case they spoiled the surprise. Of course, Brave would then come out and reveal itself as not much more than a simple fairy tale.
Even Robot Chicken would make fun of this, having Merida in one of their skits say, “The trailer was very misleading!” Everyone learned a valuable lesson from Brave — not that familial love is important, but that trailers from Disney can be terrible representations of the movie itself.
When the trailer for Pixar’s latest film Elemental was released online, plenty of people were quick to point out how similar it was to another Disney film, Zootopia (a film not even a decade old), mainly because of how similar Element City looked to Zootopia itself. Others compared it to Pixar’s own Inside Out, another film that hasn’t reached the 10-year mark yet, because of how fire and water becoming friends felt like Joy and Sadness becoming friends.
The bottom line is, Elemental isn’t doing too well with first impressions, and people already feel that Disney isn’t offering much that’s new with this release.
It certainly doesn’t help that the film reportedly took 7 years to make, which means development would’ve begun by 2016 — the same year Zootopia was released, and one year after Inside Out was released. I’d even say that the protagonist Ember reminds me too much of Remy from Ratatouille and Merida from Brave, a zesty young adult trying to forge their own path rather than the path their parents set out for them.
Still, there are worse things than being self-derivative, right? Pixar’s 2021 film Luca had its derivative moments — the character Massimo feels like a carbon copy of the dad from Pixar’s own La Luna — and that film was still a critical darling, scoring 91% on Rotten Tomatoes and even getting an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature.
And there is a reason why Disney constantly revisits themes of finding yourself and familial love. These are themes that Disney’s core target audience of families and especially young kids can strongly identify with, since they themselves have experienced or are experiencing similar scenarios.
However, the current problem people have with Elemental is that it seems to bring nothing new to the table in terms of recent Disney or even Pixar films. During Brave’s release, there were only two new recent additions to the Disney Princess line-up, Tiana and Rapunzel, so a princess that came from Pixar (their first female protagonist too), didn’t sing, and didn’t have a romantic interest felt refreshing and intriguing.
Inside Out’s idea of personifying emotions felt like such a novel idea, and while movies and shows taking place in characters’ minds existed before, taking the rather literal route of turning emotions into actual characters piqued enough curiosity in viewers to see how Pixar would pull it off.
Even the idea of a society divided by elements isn’t new. Director Peter Sohn claims Elemental isn’t inspired by Avatar: The Last Airbender, but given how popular the show is, there’s no getting around it — people are going to be reminded of The Last Airbender when they see the marketing for this film.
To me, however, Elemental’s biggest problem isn’t that it feels derivative — it’s that it feels safe. If you want to make an animated film that’s an allegory for discrimination and societal expectations based on race, making it about elements feels like the most obvious path you can take. The stereotypes are all there, the elements that are supposed to be complete opposites are as clear as day.
Of course, the protagonist who’s made of fire befriends a character who’s made of water. Of course, the protagonist’s parents disapprove of her new water friend. Of course, the big rule in this society is that elements can’t mix. It all feels so easy, like the story was built around the themes of the film rather than the other way around.
All that said, Elemental can certainly still be good, and I still have every intention of watching it on the big screen, if only to see if it’s able to surprise me. Its marketing, however, is not off to a great start, and there’s a chance Disney might have to rely on good reviews and word-of-mouth when the film releases if the marketing decides to continue in this direction.
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