Why Disney’s Wish Wasn’t the Sleeper Hit Elemental Was

Wish Elemental
Wish Elemental

Initially predicted to be a box office bomb, Elemental surprised everyone by earning more and more money the longer it stayed in theaters until it made more than double its budget, garnering $496 million against a budget of $200 million. When Wish released to a similarly disappointing low opening, Variety suggested the film could pull an Elemental and find success the more it stayed in theaters.

That didn’t happen. Disney’s big movie celebrating its 100 years was a box office flop, only grossing $180 million against a budget of $200 million. Why was this the case? It certainly wasn’t for a lack of marketing, as Wish was Disney Animation’s most-watched trailer since Frozen II.

The easy answer would be that Wish received mixed reviews, with only a 48% on Rotten Tomatoes. Still, Elemental wasn’t raved by critics either, only receiving a 73% on Rotten Tomatoes when most Pixar titles receive a score of above 90%. Let’s compare the box office performances of Elemental and Wish and figure out why the former succeeded and the latter failed.


Polarizing Art Style

When Wish’s trailer premiered, people online were quick to comment about how the film looked “half-rendered” and “unfinished”, with the movie going for a 2.5D look rather than the usual 3D animation Disney Animation looks. There were also speculations about whether Disney simply wanted to jump aboard the 2.5D trend heralded by animated titles like Klaus, Nimona, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem.

Elemental, on the other hand, looks like classic Pixar animation, and even negative reviews of the film acknowledged how great the movie looked. Even if Elemental isn’t up to the story quality we expect from Pixar, audience members can at least enjoy the film’s visuals.

That said, there were also reviews commenting on how beautiful Wish looked, with Paste calling it “a children’s book come to life.” To view Wish’s animation as objectively incompetent wouldn’t be right, either. It’s a niche look, which might not have been the best decision for such a big-budgeted film celebrating Disney’s centennial year.


Lack of International Success

Elemental found significant success with its release in South Korea, as the film became the country’s most-viewed foreign movie of the year and the most-viewed Pixar film released there. As the film was directed by Korean American Peter Sohn, he took inspiration from his childhood and his parents who immigrated to New York from South Korea to craft the film.

These themes resonated with the South Korean audience, especially because the fire people were clearly coded Asian and romance is a popular genre for South Korea. A similar story happened with The Little Mermaid (2023), as the remake was especially successful in the Philippines, surpassing The Super Mario Bros. Movie and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.

Wish had no such luck in striking gold with a foreign demographic, and its international gross amounted to only $120 million, significantly less than its $200 million budget. The film didn’t have the social commentary themes of Elemental, nor was it based on a beloved classic like The Little Mermaid.

All it really had going for it was an original property that people would hopefully find interesting enough to buy a ticket for. Had that been the case, Wish should’ve been a hit during its initial release.


Underperforming Soundtrack

Pixar has never made a musical film. Big Broadway-style musical numbers have always been Disney Animation’s thing, and because of that, chart success has always been important to how well a musical film of theirs performs. Frozen’s soundtrack was a big hit, and so was Moana’s.

Encanto’s soundtrack was so successful that it gave new life to the box office disappointment and turned it into a cultural phenomenon. Just one hit song is enough to push a Disney animated film to new commercial heights.

Unfortunately, despite Disney releasing a new song from Wish every week up until its release, none of the film’s tracks ever became a huge hit. One song in particular, the villain song This Is The Thanks I Get?!, was heavily criticized for being messy and unmemorable, its quality nowhere near the greatness of classic Disney villain songs like Be Prepared and Hellfire.

While I think the hate for this song was mostly due to the bandwagon effect, regardless, a film’s soundtrack being panned can be detrimental when that film is a musical. Elemental didn’t have this problem to worry about: it wasn’t a musical, so people had to buy tickets to experience what it was offering.


Summer vs. Winter Release

Elemental was released during early June, just in time for the summer break to begin. The film began sprouting legs in early July, and for those two months, the only competition it really had was Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.

Sure, June and July of 2023 also saw the releases of Transformers: Rise of the Beasts and Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny. However, not only were those two box office disappointments, they also weren’t as colorful and kid-friendly as Elemental was, meaning they targeted a different audience.

You could even wonder if Elemental would’ve been a bigger hit had Barbie released much later in the year, since that was the only July theatrical release that was just as colorful and strongly appealed to a female demographic. Wish, on the other hand, released during the holiday season. Not only was this a busier time with Wish releasing the very day before Thanksgiving, it also had to compete with films released during November and December.

This means competing with The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes, Wonka, Trolls Band Together, and Migration. It also meant competing with Netflix’s Leo, another animated film that was released straight-to-streaming one day before Wish premiered.

All of these are films targeting a young audience, and with the exception of The Hunger Games, all of them are on the fun, comedic side. The competition was a lot fiercer, and Wish would’ve needed some seriously strong legs to become the sleeper hit Elemental was.


Should Disney Have Sleeper Hits?

At the end of the day, though, Disney is far too big of a company to rely on their blockbusters becoming sleeper hits to make a profit. The simple fact of a movie being made by Pixar or Disney Animation was enough to get people into cinema seats, but it appears that’s no longer the case.

Disney’s next big animated movie is Pixar’s Inside Out 2, and with how successful the first film was, it’d be especially concerning if this one wasn’t a hit from the get-go. With the company having had a particularly rough time since the pandemic, Disney needs to do something fast if they ever want to go back to the animated hit makers they once were.

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