The new film suggests Pixar needs to break new ground to remain America’s first name in innovative animation.
Over the years, Pixar has enlisted a variety of creatures to populate their wholesome stories of love and acceptance. There have been toys, monsters, cars, disembodied souls, and even the occasional human. In their new film Elemental, the characters are personifications of the four elements. It’s a choice that may leave you asking, “Have they run out of ideas at this point?”
In practice, the central conceit plays like a more clumsily crafted Inside Out. One lacking that earlier Pixar’s emotional grounding. This ho-hum world-building, combined with weak character design and a meandering storyline, makes for a viewing experience that’s pretty much the worst thing a family movie can be: boring.
Compared to other recent animated features like Turning Red, Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, or even Across the Spider-Verse, Elemental is visually unappealing. Set in a fantastical metropolis called Element City, all four kinds of element people coexist to varying degrees. Despite being candy-colored and having a unique water-based transit system, Element City’s design more or less looks like the Land of the Dead from Pixar’s excellent Coco mashed up with the world of the emotions from Inside Out.
Even though air and earth people appear in the film, Elemental chiefly concerns itself with fire and water characters. Protagonist Ember (voiced by Leah Lewis) looks like a parody of a typical Pixar woman rendered in flames. Big eyes, thick thighs, and a tiny waist. When she occasionally spreads fire beyond her body, her facial features seem to be floating, unattached, in front of the animated inferno.
The water people, including Ember’s opposites-attract love interest Wade (voiced by Mamoudou Athie), are even worse off. Transparent and cool-toned, they fade into Element City’s design in their pastel costumes. When you can get a decent look at them, most water people’s faces look almost exactly like Wade’s, only with different hairstyles. Additionally, they all bear an unfortunate resemblance to the ghostly blue souls from Soul.
The neighborhood the fire people inhabit on the outskirts of Element City is the most visually and emotionally interesting part of the film. Built up bit by bit by immigrants from Fire Land, including Ember’s father Bernie (voiced by Ronnie del Carmen) and mother Cinder (voiced by Shila Ommi), it’s the only part of the film’s world that actually feels lived in. Bernie’s café, The Fire Place, is especially fun. It’s chockfull of playful and charming details. Quirky pottery vessels, tiny product labels, and Fire Land snacks, made of wood and charcoal, in varying degrees of spiciness. Pixar’s typical dedication to getting the texture of every brick and piece of kindling comes through. Alas, it clashes with the characters’ less realistic, more exaggerated designs. It’s hard not to wish they had gone the Luca route, making the entire world bolder and more cartoonish to match the concept.
Without many family-friendly laughs to balance the scales… it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly who is Elemental’s intended core audience.
Ember’s loving but dutiful relationship with her immigrant father– stubborn as he is stoic–serves as the story’s catalyst and emotional throughline. Bernie’s dream is for his daughter to inherit the café. However, Ember, a talented glass artist with a temperament not suited for customer service, has her doubts. Elemental makes it clear that the fire people represent South Asian immigrants, and some moments between Bernie and Ember gently and thoughtfully probe the differences in generational experiences.
Still, it’s hard to understand why the world of the elements was the right vehicle, especially after Turning Red tackled similar issues without leaving 2002 Toronto. There can be real joy in a specificity that conveys lived personal experiences, but Elemental lacks that. Both Disney and Pixar have received criticism for portraying non-white protagonists as anything but human. Unfortunately, this movie does little to dodge that assessment.
All the voice performances are solid, especially Athie as the tender, emotional Wade. Since much of the film sees Ember and Wade wandering the streets in search of a leak endangering Bernie’s café, their repartee is the source of most of the humor the story has to offer. Lewis holds her own as cynical Ember, but Athie steals every scene, adding just the right amount of watery tremor to his weepy declarations. Ommi also shines as the adorably nosy Cinder, and a small cameo role voiced by Joe Pera will tickle alt-comedy fans.
There are some good jokes in Elemental, but the best ones are probably for grown-ups only. Visual gags like a pamphlet entitled So You’re Going Out of Business! are hilarious. That is, unless you’re a child watching this movie and you can’t read. The same goes for a few sly, subtle gags like Wade and Ember accidentally peeping in on a couple of apple trees, seductively picking each others’ fruit. Even Wade and Ember’s endearingly prickly rapport feels pitched more at adults than kids. Pithy and full of rapid-fire wordplay, their exchanges are clever. They’re also dependent on one’s ability to understand puns and pop culture winks. Romance in mainstream films is vanishing, so their yearning courtship is a welcome addition. Without many family-friendly laughs to balance the scales, though, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly who is Elemental’s intended core audience.
Even Pixar’s worst films are better than much of the hollow, algorithmic fare churned out elsewhere to make a quick buck off kids. But Elemental makes it clear the standard Pixar schtick of using cutesy creatures to represent heady social issues has limits. As animators across the industry continue to innovate, pushing cinematic boundaries, Pixar must move beyond photorealistically rendering every sand grain. If they want to keep up, they have to start playing with new design styles. Elemental makes it painfully clear. The time has come to innovate or be extinguished.
Elemental pushes through the pipes and lights theatres’ pilot lights beginning June 15.