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When it earned the worst opening weekend in studio history it seemed like “Elemental” was a sign that Pixar had lost the magic touch that made it a cornerstone of Disney’s box office dominance for years.

But over the past two months, “Elemental” has quietly won over audiences worldwide and steamed along to a $423 million total through this past Sunday, with $148 million coming from North America. While still not a theatrical hit, director Peter Sohn’s romantic tale is no longer the “Lightyear”-esque flop it once appeared destined to become, and has shown that Pixar is not as far off from returning to its past form as it seemed.

“It’s rare for any sort of film to earn a 5-times multiple in this box office,” Comscore analyst Paul Dergarabedian told TheWrap, noting how the film went from an anemic $29.6 million domestic opening to an overall domestic total of nearly $150 million. “A lot of people gave up on this film, but audiences didn’t, and it had lasting power with families that let it play for weeks,” he said.

In fact, “Elemental” has the highest global box office total of any original film so far this year, “original” in the sense that it has no pre-existing IP attached or is directly based on a true story or nonfiction literature. If the scope is expanded to true story inspiration, the only films that have topped “Elemental” are the indie film “Sound of Freedom,” which has a higher domestic total with $163 million, and Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer,” which passed $550 million worldwide this past weekend.

Prior to release, “Elemental” received mixed reviews from its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, while the film’s marketing, focused on the colorful setting and its inhabitants, didn’t boost interest among moviegoers.

But after release, word of mouth slowly but surely began to pick up worldwide. Sohn based the film’s story, which follows a fire element named Ember as she trains to take over her father’s shop and unexpectedly falls in love with a water element named Wade, off of his experience growing up in New York with his Korean immigrant parents.

That connection turned “Elemental” into a big hit in South Korea, where the film has grossed a Pixar record of $48 million. In other countries like the United States, France, Mexico and Britain, that same story of culture clash and honoring one’s parents resonated with adults while the colorful imagery and characters of Element City charmed kids.

Unlike last year’s “Lightyear,” which was too detached from its “Toy Story” roots and didn’t have a compelling enough story and visuals to keep families coming in, “Elemental” had the recipe to leg out in a manner similar to DreamWorks’ “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish,” which grossed $480.9 million this past winter.

But while “Puss” carried a reported production budget of $90 million, “Elemental” comes in at more than double that at $200 million. Films produced by Pixar and Walt Disney Animation typically come with such a budget for a variety of reasons, including its use of in-house animators instead of vendors.

But that price tag means that a $425 million global total, which would be a success for a studio like DreamWorks or Illumination, still comes short of the rough break-even point for Pixar.

While “Elemental” shows that Pixar can still charm audiences, Disney has work to do to figure out how to sell the studio’s animated films — especially non-sequel ones — to a moviegoing public that has many more options for family entertainment than it did in Pixar’s 2000s heyday. That’s when the studio could afford to show off plot-light trailers for films like “Wall-E” and “Up” and still rake in millions because of Pixar’s immense audience clout.

To get back to the form seen with films like “Inside Out,” which grossed $857 million worldwide in 2015 and is now getting a sequel, building up that pre-release buzz for new characters and stories is critical, and not just for theatrical prospects but for the plethora of revenue streams that these films create after they leave cinemas.

When a film like “Lightyear” or last year’s Disney film “Strange World” fails to launch culturally and financially, it stifles Disney’s plans to reuse those characters and films in merchandising, theme parks and other parts of the company’s massive portfolio. (That said, even films that skipped theaters entirely, like Pixar’s 2022 streaming exclusive “Turning Red,” have seen Disney stores stuffed with items featuring that movie’s red panda heroine, Meilin.)

The slow-burn success of “Elemental” will keep Disney’s hope of selling toys and clothes with Ember and Wade on them alive, but the company doesn’t make original films like this just to turn a profit from post-theatrical revenue. While Pixar’s next summer film will be a sequel, with “Inside Out 2,” the studio has another original film before that with “Elio,” a story about a young boy who is mistaken by an intergalactic congress of aliens as Earth’s leader.

It’s unclear whether the SAG-AFTRA strike will force Disney to move “Elio” or “Inside Out 2” from their current release spots in March and June of next year, as insiders told TheWrap that Pixar banked voice recordings from actors for those projects prior to the start of the strike. If “Elio” does stay put, it will at least not have to worry about competition from “Spider-Man: Beyond the Spider-Verse,” which did have to move out of its March 2024 slot because of the strike.

Disney has already released a teaser for “Elio” showing off the film’s plot and its lead character, and will likely release another trailer in November ahead of Disney Animation’s Thanksgiving release “Wish.” If those trailers, along with audience goodwill from “Elemental” and better pre-release reviews next spring, can help build more early public buzz for “Elio,” the recent poor opening weekends Pixar has suffered could be left behind.

It’s probably too much to ask “Elio” to match the $857 million total of “Inside Out,” but a global box office total between $550 million and $650 million would be a modest success for Pixar, and a sign that “Elemental” was in the long run a stepping stone in getting the studio back on track as a major player at the animation box office.

The post ‘Elemental’ and Pixar Have Quietly Made a Box Office Comeback appeared first on TheWrap.

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