Elemental is part of My Summer of Summer Movies, in which I am attempting to see and review every movie that opens (in Chicago) between Memorial Day and Labor Day, 2023. Read all about this ill-advised plan here.
Though the bloom has somewhat come off the rose in recent years, the Pixar brand still has a lot of cachet, and the expectations surrounding any new Pixar film become a double-edged sword. On the one hand, I know I tend to judge these movies by a very high standard—the standard, to be precise, that was set by the company's best films. (For my money, those are the first two Toy Story movies, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille—not necessarily in that order.)
On the other hand, there is still something in the Pixar name—and the undeniable quality of their animation—that inclines me to see movies I might otherwise skip, and to try to find hidden worth in films I initially find underwhelming. Which is to say, I always want to like a Pixar movie, and I always try to like a Pixar movie, even when—as happens more and more often now—I really don't.
So sometimes, to stop myself from overthinking it, I find it helpful to ask: What would I think of this movie if I didn't know it was Pixar? And in the case of their new film, Elemental, I'm pretty sure I'd say it's a really bad movie with some fairly nice animation.
The world of Elemental—directed by Peter Sohn (The Good Dinosaur)—is one populated by different races (for lack of a better term), each composed of one of the four elements: air, fire, water, and earth. Each element presumably has their own countries or regions, but a lot of them have made their way to the multi-cultural Element City, where they tend to live in communities comprised of their own kind. Ember (Leah Lewis) is the child of Firish (get it?) immigrants Bernie (Ronnie Del Carmen) and Cinder (Shila Ommi), who left Fireland to seek a better life in Element City. Bernie runs a little shop in Firetown, but he dreams of retiring and leaving the running of the family business to his hot-headed (in every sense) daughter.
Ember longs to prove herself to her father, and to pay her parents back for all the sacrifices they've made to ensure her future. However, on the first day her father trusts her to run the shop, she accidentally causes a pipe to burst in the basement, bringing in both a flood of water and a watery city inspector named Wade (Mamoudou Athie). Soon, Ember and Wade are working together to track down municipal infrastructure problems (fun!) that threaten to put her family's store out of business. In the process, might these two star-crossed elements fall in love? Can a Fire and a Water ever find acceptance and happiness together? Or will their relationship just evaporate into a steaming pile of…steam?
If the description of Elemental's premise sounds both dully simplistic and utterly confusing, then I've somehow explained it properly. (And that would surprise me, because I barely made it through those two paragraphs without giving up.)
Look: the fact that this world makes absolutely no sense is a problem, to be sure. (To fill this review with a litany of very literal questions—Why (and how) do they wear clothes?—would be fun, but pedantic and decidedly churlish.) In terms of getting us to accept its premise, Elemental has a lot of the same logistical problems as Pixar's weakest franchise Cars: there is no real imagination or wonder in the world-building—it's just our world, with strange, completely illogical creatures living in it—and the anthropomorphizing just raises more questions than the film bothers to answer. (Imagine for us what a society of water people might actually look like, and I'd be interested. But if you show me water people living in a flooded penthouse apartment with regular furniture, and I'm not sure I see the point. It's just character design for the sake of character design.)
The larger problem, however, is that if I'm thinking about the basic physics or sociology of Element City, it's because none of the story elements or character notes in Elemental are working for me either. (After all, I'm not sure the world of Monsters, Inc. really makes a lot of sense if you think about it too much, but you don't. It's too much fun, and the character work is engaging and touching, and you genuinely get caught up in Mike and Sully's need to protect little Boo and get her back to the human world. Who cares about logic?)
Here, however, Ember is fiery tempered and guilt-ridden over her parents, but she's neither particularly interesting nor particularly likable. Wade is sweet and soft-hearted to a fault, but he's also kind of a drip. (Pun intended. I also could have gone with "wet blanket.") Neither of them has enough personality to engage us. Neither of them (or anything else in the film) is particularly funny. And their supposed attraction—which mostly plays out in montage—lacks the spark necessary to fuel a romance that violates the laws of physics.
(Pixar has made me care about living toys, monsters in the closet, a rat with preternatural culinary abilities, and a garbage-collecting robot, among other things. But I can't say I cared about Ember and Wade at all.)
The entire film just feels half-baked and unloved, as if no one was inspired to fill it with good ideas, and no one cared about it enough to give it heart. At its center Elemental is supposed to be a story about children born of immigrants, with a sub-plot about interracial dating, and occasional random notes of racial prejudice thrown in. But the "elements" metaphor not only fails to stand on its own, it actually works against the thin substance of the film's message.
(One example: when Bernie and Cinder first come to Element City, they have trouble renting an apartment because no one wants to rent to the Firish. And that might be a workable metaphor for the prejudice immigrants face, were it not for the fact that Bernie and Cinder are made of fire. Several times in the film, in fact, Ember loses her temper and explodes, setting everything around her ablaze. Call me intolerant if you want, but I wouldn't rent to Fires either. I mean, just imagine the insurance premiums.)
Since very little about the four-elements world is imaginatively rendered or interesting to explore—let alone to think about—and since it actually makes the story Pixar is trying to tell harder and less relatable, it is interesting to imagine a version of Elemental in which they just dropped the metaphor and made it about human beings. (Give me a beautifully realized, real-world animated story about an immigrant family in the new world, and I'd have been all over that.) But of course, it's hard to sell toys and lunchboxes of real people.
To be certain, Pixar has made some good movies in recent years, including Coco (2017) Incredibles 2 (2018), and Turning Red (2022). But I also wonder if they are simply making too many movies, too quickly. (In the first 10 years of the studio's existence, Pixar released six movies. In the last 10 years, they've released 14.) And the narrative about Pixar used to be that they were perfectionists. Everyone who worked there during the golden age talks about how they were absolutely ruthless with story, demanding concept after concept, draft after draft, often changing everything and starting over, or even scrapping entire productions because the story just wasn't good enough. "Pixar doesn't make films better than anyone else," says former Pixar employee Mike Sundy, on his blog. "They just make them over and over until they get them right."
Pixar could stand to embrace a bit more of that perfectionism. At best, Elemental needed a few more passes on its story and script. More likely, it was a fundamentally flawed concept from the start.