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Pixar's 'Elemental' bombs at box office

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Pixar's new movie, "Elemental," hit U.S. theaters this weekend. The movie takes place in a world inhabited by elements - think fire and water - elements trying to live together in harmony.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ELEMENTAL")

LEAH LEWIS: (As Ember Lumen) But we all live by one simple rule.

SHILA OMMI: (As Cinder Lumen) Elements cannot mix.

KELLY: Another thing that did not mix - this movie and the box office. It brought in just over $30 million in the U.S. and Canada. That is among the lowest debuts for a Pixar movie in the studio's history. Critic Keith Phipps has reviewed "Elemental" and is here now. Hey there.

KEITH PHIPPS: Hi.

KELLY: OK. You saw this movie. Is it any good? What'd you think?

PHIPPS: You know, it's really - it's not bad. Part of the problem with...

KELLY: (Laughter) It's not a ringing endorsement. Go on.

PHIPPS: No. And I can't endorse it ringingly (ph), but it's perfectly fine. But Pixar's reputation is kind of founded on better than perfectly fine animated films.

KELLY: Yeah.

PHIPPS: And so when something comes along like this or like "Lightyear," I think it looks a little worse than it actually is. It's actually visually quite stunning. It's a remarkable-looking movie and certainly, its heart in the right place, too. But, you know, there's just not a lot driving the engine on this one and - from the characters to the story.

KELLY: Although, as you note, the reputation of Pixar is huge, is formidable, and by definition, a new audience hasn't seen the movie yet, so they don't know whether it's any good or not. What do you think is going on with it being - I don't want to say a box office flop, but certainly has the beginnings of being a box office flop?

PHIPPS: I think there's a couple of things going on here. One is I think there's movies like "Lightyear" that are - you know, don't really get people excited about the next Pixar movie when that's the last one. But also, some of the company's best movies have been coming out direct to streaming on Disney+. And with - you know, starting with "Soul" in December of 2020, and there's a pretty obvious reason why that would skip theaters. And, you know, ostensibly, the next two were kept from theaters for different COVID-related things in 2021 and 2022. And those were "Luca" and "Turning Red." But if you asked me, like, the best Pixar films of the last few years, those are the best ones, and they did not play theaters at all. Even if the film is playing in theaters, there's not going to be that much time before it shows up at Disney+. So I think people perhaps just kind of want to wait this one out.

KELLY: Yeah. So people got - as we - you know, this is part of the broader trend of whether people will return to cinemas post-pandemic. But you're saying with Pixar movies in particular, people got used to just being able to stream right away from their sofa?

PHIPPS: I think so, for sure. And I think my overall concern is sort of a narrowing of what people go to movie theaters to see. If it's just big blockbusters and everything else goes direct to streaming, it's not as an exciting place to be when you're going to the movie theaters.

KELLY: Is there any precedent for a movie that does not have a stellar box office opening weekend to pick up steam as the summer rolls on?

PHIPPS: Yeah. There certainly are precedents. And what "Elemental" does have going forward is it's a kids' film, and it can play all summer long to other audiences of younger viewers.

KELLY: In the air conditioning, when parents are desperately searching for something to do to entertain their out-of-school kids. Go on.

PHIPPS: Movie theaters are great babysitters or time-fillers, as I remember from my youth. But, I mean, yeah, there's a chance that people did seem to like it who did see it, based on CinemaScore ratings. So, you know, word of mouth could be good. It could draw people in. But after an opening like this, that's a - there's a long way to crawl out of that hole.

KELLY: Film critic Keith Phipps, thanks so much.

PHIPPS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.