Elemental opens in theaters on June 16, 2023
There’s no bigger evidence of being a stick in the mud than trying to poke holes in the believability of an animated fantasy film marketed to kids. Are the cars in Cars manufactured? How can Cinderella be the only gal in the entire realm with that size foot? Minions – what’s, uh, what’s the deal with them? You sound like a dummy at best and a spoilsport at worst. If a movie is enjoyable, and it keeps children quiet for 90 minutes, just roll with it, right?
Elemental, the latest from Pixar, really pushes this philosophy to the limit. It is absolutely gorgeous to look at, has some thrilling chase sequences, a reasonably charming romance, some great music, and plenty of sly gags. But unlike its closest high-concept comparison, Inside Out, its internal logic is fundamentally frustrating. At a certain point you just have to say this makes no sense!
Elemental is set in a world where different anthropomorphized elements – water, fire, air, and earth (in the form mostly of trees and shrubs) – do their best to coexist in the bustling metropolis of Element City. The newest group to arrive on its shores are the Firish, who tend to stick together in their own little Fire Town ghetto. This is a none-too-subtle metaphor for immigration to a Western city, with the twin specters of prejudice and assimilation looming over the younger generation’s head. This is not exactly new ground – in fact, the first feature-length “talkie,” 1927’s The Jazz Singer, deals with many of the same issues. But Elemental is definitely the first version of the tale to include sentient puffs of cloud playing their own version of Quidditch.
This is a none-too-subtle metaphor for immigration to a Western city.
The opening moves at a brisk pace, with a montage showing the nifty visual splendor of the world. Living volumes of water gush and blob around, an occasional extinguishing hazard to the fire people (who are quick to cause problems for any trees that get too close).
Our young heroine is Ember Lumen, whose proud Firish immigrant parents built a convenience store (cleverly named The Fireplace!) from the ground up. When disaster strikes she encounters the sniveling bureaucrat Wade Ripple, and for a stretch this becomes the most anti-regulatory family-friendly movie since our pals the Ghostbusters took on the EPA. In time, Ember is able to convince Wade to help her fight city hall and keep The Fireplace open, and their scheming builds to an unlikely friendship and, eventually, love.
Both of these characters are super annoying.
The biggest problem is that both of these characters are super annoying. Ember, voiced by Leah Lewis, has one note: she’s angry all the time. (We’ll learn this is due to sublimating some generation-gap resentments; she doesn’t want to run The Fireplace.) Worse, though, is Wade, voiced by Mamoudou Athie as an annoying twerp who can’t stop sobbing all the time. He falls in love with Ember almost immediately – and I couldn’t tell you why. All she does is yell and complain! But when Ember indicates she isn’t interested, Wade doesn’t let up, practically acting like a liquid stalker. It’s a little bit weird, and not something you’d want kids to take any lessons about romance from.
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There’s also a secondary plot about dangerous leaks throughout the city – dangerous even to a water fella like Wade. And here’s where things really started to bug me. If Wade is living water – what is regular water? This is never addressed or even acknowledged, but I was not the only idiot puzzled by this. (After the screening I turned to some colleagues who admitted they couldn’t figure this out either; I guess if you are a kid, you just accept it.) And I know I am risking sounding like the very same stick in the mud I warned about, but imagine if, in Cars, they get on a freeway and you see a bunch of lifeless automobiles cruising alongside Lightning McQueen and ‘Mater. It’s flabbergasting.
What’s causing the leaks seems like it is building to a big Chinatown-esque conspiracy, but that storyline is completely abandoned. The principal conflict becomes a question of if two people from such different worlds could ever make it work as a couple. It’s clear from the beginning that somehow love will triumph, but there is the key problem that if the two ever touch they both turn to steam.
One begins to wonder if this metaphor is a bit forced, and when the messages of believing in yourself and following your dreams really go into after-school special overdrive, you realize why Minions is so popular with kids. Not a lot of lessons are being forced down your throat with those movies, it’s mostly just loud noises and acting silly.
That said, there is no shortage of puns cramming the frame, and the scenes where Ember comes to the Ripple home for dinner includes some quality zings. And although the story fails to truly connect, there’s never a moment that’s too boring, as everything on screen is just so dazzling to look at.
Visually, Pixar is in absolutely top form with the creation of Element City and its inhabitants. Unfortunately, the story is way too thin and none of it makes any sense. It’s hard to see young kids being too into this, and older ones – who can usually trust this company to not talk down to the audience – may get annoyed by the rote platitudes that feel like a lecture.