Fan-Favorite Pixar Director Defends Shocking Character Death

in Entertainment, Pixar

Ember and Wade from Elemental sitting on a bench as their families walk behind them

Credit: Pixar

When Disney’s release of Pixar’s Elemental (2023), an ambitious rom-com about love and setting aside your differences, first arrived in theaters over the summer, it wasn’t exactly a box office hit from the get-go. Eventually, audiences warmed up to the charming blockbuster, but still, one concern persisted: why did filmmakers decide to “kill off” one of its most likable characters?

Cast of Elemental enjoying a movie in a theater, all wearing sunglasses
Credit: Pixar

Related: Pixar’s ‘Elemental’ Continues To Be a Surprise Hit, Beats ‘Avatar’

Pixar has never been afraid to dive into more mature themes throughout its nearly 40-year history, with the critically acclaimed Inside Out (2015) touching on themes of mental illness, while Soul (2021) addresses feelings of insecurity, purposelessness, and what it means to find true meaning in life.

Elemental, helmed by legendary Disney director Peter Sohn, is certainly no different, confronting social issues including immigration, prejudice, and segregation head-on in an otherwise unsuspecting comedy about two polar opposites falling in love: the fiery Ember (Leah Lewis) and the go-with-the-flow Wade (Mamoudou Athie).

Ember and Wade with Clod off to the side in Elemental
Credit: Pixar

Related: Legendary Pixar Director Admits Audiences Don’t Like New Films

Over its opening weekend, things weren’t looking too good for Elemental at the box office. But thanks to a little word of mouth and generally positive reviews from critics, interest in the film quickly went from a spark to a roaring flame, and little by little, the movie ended up collecting nearly $500 million worldwide.

With an impressive box office haul, Disney celebrated the film’s surprising theatrical comeback in a rare statement before debuting it on Disney+ in September. Now, rumors of a spinoff series or potential sequel are circulating online, with various reports claiming that the House of Mouse is keenly interested in expanding Elemental into a full-blown franchise.

disney pixar elemental
Credit: Disney/Pixar

But before a Disney+ original series or any follow-up films get confirmed, Peter Sohn recently looked back on his experience making Elemental while speaking in the latest issue of Empire Magazine, where he stood by his decision to initially kill off Wade before bringing him back.

As those who have watched the film know, after a flood spills over into Firetown, Wade heroically swoops in to save Ember and her family’s treasured blue flame. However, trapped inside a small room with little air to circulate, Wade evaporates, seemingly dying.

wade whipple eating in elemental disney
Credit: Disney Studios

At the last second, Wade comes back to life after Ember discovers that his moisture is still capable of crying, leading Ember to enumerate the different scenarios that brought tears to Wade’s eyes while playing the Crying Game earlier on in the film and ultimately revives him. The pair get their happy ending and sail off into the sunset after the flood recedes and the day is saved.

While the “they’re dead, just kidding, they’re alive” routine is hardly anything new for Disney and Pixar, Sohn discussed why this pivotal death scene was important to showcase in the movie, admitting that a “big death” like Wade’s was “such a risk,” adding that his sacrifice was intended to create “a real sincere moment for Ember to feel the loss:”

A big death is so sensitive and it’s such a risk because you could throw your whole audience out. But this idea formed to have our cake and eat it too with the sacrifice that happens for Wade. It wasn’t like, ‘Let’s fool everybody.’ It was a real, sincere moment for Ember to feel the loss.

Two hands from Pixar's Elemental
Credit: Disney

And believe it or not, early script treatments might’ve featured an even darker death scene, with Sohn noting that it all boiled down to “a little vacation” and a push from Elemental executive producer Pete Docter, who reminded him about his “original pitch” and swayed him away from going all-out with the angst:

There’s a version of the movie that was really dark because I was going through grief personally. Pete Docter, my EP, was like, ‘Was this always the thing that you wanted to do? I remember your original pitch with heart.’ And so after that, I went on a little vacation and drew all these ideas.

Although some critics might’ve been taken aback by Wade’s death scene, even if he ended up surviving in the end, Sohn’s explanation proves exactly why it was so necessary to Elemental and its core message of allowing emotions to break free, allowing Ember to fully realize her feelings for Wade.

ember and wade in pixar movie elemental
Credit: Disney

Wade’s not-so-death also cemented the movie’s happy ending, which absolutely felt like an earned conclusion for the couple. This controversial scene, which many dubbed as “too dark” for kids, was discussed by screenwriters John Hoberg and Kat Likkel in June, with Hoberg admitting that Wade’s sacrifice was their contribution to the movie:

Our first version was the fourth version, and he didn’t die in the previous three, so I guess that was our first contribution: killing Wade.

Understandably, Likkel then confirmed that Wade being killed off permanently was never in the cards, pointing out that the child audience members during the test screening “were just inconsolable” after Wade’s death:

The kids were just inconsolable. Seeing Wade go away forever would have killed me.

It’s interesting to hear the behind-the-scenes perspectives of Elemental‘s creators, and how they eventually landed on including a Wade death scene to really hammer home the film’s central themes of selflessness, tolerance, and impossible attraction.

ember in pixar movie elemental
Credit: Disney

While Disney and Pixar have yet to confirm the expansion of the Elemental universe, it would be a real shame to waste such a vibrant, textured world on just one solo film. Considering its widespread success, audiences would almost certainly be on board for future installments, but only time will tell if Pixar finds such a project worthwhile.

Do you think Wade’s death scene in Elemental was necessary for the story to work? Let us know in the comments below!

Comments Off on Fan-Favorite Pixar Director Defends Shocking Character Death