Set in Element City, we’re introduced to a world populated by anthropomorphised versions of earth, air, water and fire. The opening montage tracks a couple emigrating from the fire homeland, and immediately face discrimination and xenophobia. The pair setup shop in a rundown part of town and slowly flourish due to an exceptional amount of hard work. Over time, they raise their daughter Ember [Lewis], with the hope that she will inherit their legacy and store. But as the fiery Ember cannot control her temper, her father maintains she is simply not ready. This is proven accurate when she has a meltdown during a hectic sale, and heads into the basement to literally explode. In doing so, she ruptures the pipes and meets the water element city inspector, Wade [Athie]. Despite being complete opposites, the pair unite to keep the shop running and explore their potential feelings for one another.
On a technical level, the film is a wonder. If you see this at a cinema, you are in for a genuine treat. In an age where I’m essentially expecting visual effects to be subpar, it’s so refreshing to see animated films being released at the top of their game. On top of that, Thomas Newman’s score is frankly magnificent. A vibrant, kinetic and eclectic mix of instruments and styles, to create an aural landscape that feels like it speaks to vast examples of cultures around the world. And for these technical achievements alone, the film garners its final score. Everything else brings it crashing to the ground.
While a Disney animated feature, rather than a Pixar release, Zootopia/Zootropolis feels like an immediate comparison point. And not necessarily in a good way. Populating a human-looking city with animals largely worked because we’ve seen it in practice in nature and zoo-like environments. However, where that subtle layering thrived, Elemental really struggles. Sure, the initial concept is fine but whenever you scratch just beneath the surface, it quickly falls apart and is only held aloft by monstrously painful puns. In this way, it ends up an incredibly simplistic concept that fails to explore the possibilities of the potential world building, instead dishing up a remarkably bland premise with surprisingly little narrative urgency. I mean, there are paper forms everywhere. In a world of living elements, this alone raises so many odd and distracting questions. Is paper not the earth people’s skin? Sure, people may bat that away by defending this as “just a kid’s movie” but it has to make sense. A cutaway gag of how pointless fences are (as seen in the trailer) isn’t enough.
But, in truth, this is a classic immigrant story with an interracial love conflict. And, much like the score, it’s a broad one. So, rather than being a direct analogy for one human counterpart, it’s an amalgam of different immigrant stories to project onto. Not only the treatment outsiders receive from those that society has been built to benefit and serve, but also the pressure it puts on the next generation. Which creates a disconnect between those who have sacrificed so much for a better life and those who want to live said life without the shackles of obligation. In this film, taking the form of the pressure of keeping your parents’ dream (or indeed flame) alive; leading to cutting dialogue such as “it doesn’t matter what I want” and “why can’t I just be a good daughter?”
I should point out that the voice acting is fantastic; honestly can’t fault it. The problem is that they have so little to work with. Because the constrictive ‘elements’ theme, leaves every character and their predicament painfully two dimensional. What’s more, the theme of integration and mixing falls apart so quickly. On the one hand, it has an incredibly simplistic view of the inherited race, religion, ethnicity and cultural aspects of people’s lives that can cause friction. That part is relatable and feels earnest. The resolution however is naive to the point of insulting. One of the key understandings of a mixed-relationship is that we are so very similar and want the same thing. It’s the traditions and prejudices that often stand in the way. That’s not the same as one person’s existence physically threatening or jeopardising the other’s. Coming back to the Zootopia/Zootropolis comparison, we get the carnivore-herbivore dynamic at play but it doesn’t cripple the film in the way this premise does.
But in truth, Elemental’s problems actually start before the movie even begins. The preceding short is Carl’s Date, which works as an effective continuation to beloved Pixar classic, Up. To dig up such a staple feature to walk out a rather flat skit with a handful of callbacks, felt disappointing and manipulative. And this speaks to a bigger problem at Pixar. Rather than forging ahead with signature style, they’re finding themselves a touch lost, unsure of who their audience is. Over the last 3 years we’ve seen Onward being perfectly acceptable but forgettable at best, which can also be said for lighthearted Luca. Then we have Soul, which was marvellous and Turning Red that genuinely tried something new, before Lightyear came out and, while feeling pretty decent to me, failed to connect with audiences. And with only next year’s Elio and a sequel to one of their best (Inside Out) on the slate, it’s hard to know if Pixar are having a bit of an identity crisis.
But, it’s easy to dismiss the above as nitpicking. For many, this will be so straightforward, it will be hard not to enjoy. And thankfully, it’s charming enough to hold your attention and keep you engaged and entertained until the end. It’s just a shame it won’t have the lasting impact it could have, with a story that was on par with the truly astonishing visuals.
07 July 2023
The Scene To Look Out For:
The mineral dance on Ember and Wade’s first date, as well as the first time Ember cries while at Wade’s house feels very revealing. It illustrates to the audience how a simple premise for a Pixar short got rightly praised but then over inflated into a much larger and more complicated piece. And one which, regrettably, never worked out the kinks and details.
As much as I can praise the voice acting, I can’t say the same for the characters. Ember and Wade are basically a one-note joke. Ember is hot tempered and Wade is a drip. That’s literally it. That feels like the first draft character note and it was never really expanding upon. Which is all the more frustrating when we need character development that boils down to Ember falls for Wade because he was able to do something she couldn’t – i.e. connect with people. I get the logic, it’s just very weak.
“I’ve never been punched in the face with beauty before.”
In A Few Words:
“I perfectly serviceable feature that feels a long way off the high bar that Pixar have previously set.”
Total Score: 3/5