Pixar’s latest film goes back to a well they’ve mined in every decade that they’ve been making movies: “what if some inanimate thing were alive?” In the 1990s, their very first feature started things off when they asked the question about toys. In the 2000s, it was cars that got the treatment. The formula continued in the 2010s when they speculated on feelings having feelings. And now in the 2020s, we get the latest entry, Elemental, which is about the four classical elements of earth, air, fire, and water. Those previous films were critical and/or box office hits. Do they have another shining star on their hands? Of has this particular well run dry?

Ember is a fire element with a temper whose parents immigrated to Element City from the old country. They run a shop that Ember will one day inherit. Wade is a water element from a well to do family who kind of just flows through life aimlessly. When he puts her family’s business in danger, the star crossed acquaintances must fight both the might of governmental bureaucracy and the fact that they could literally kill each other to put things right.

I’m saying this way too often about Pixar, but once again their latest is a fine little film, but that’s it. It’s not really bad. It gets the job done. But I don’t have much desire to go see it again. Four times in a row now — with Luca, Turning Red, Lightyear, and now Elemental — I feel like I got a movie that could have been so much more but settled for less.

I have issues with both the plot and the plotting, but let’s discuss the story issues first. Elemental is a very basic “boy meets girl, they fall in love, but they’re from two different worlds so complications ensue” story. Now I know historically love stories in animated films have not been that deep. But in recent decades studios have at least tried to make these relationships a little more interesting: Belle imprisoned by the Beast but eventually there’s something there; Shrek and Fiona despising each other during their journey until they realize they’re accidentally in love; Branch finally putting aside his fears and revealing his true colors to Poppy. In Elemental, my synopsis would be “Wade and Ember are in a lot of scenes together so now they’re in love apparently”. Not a lot of effort went into letting the audience see what they saw in each other. Their love was more a plot contrivance that the plot objective.

The other main story in the film is between Ember and her father. This works much better. The filmmakers make us care about this relationship by showing us how it developed and how it continues to the present.

There were some weird issues with the way they told some of the story. As usual, I don’t want to spoil things. So let’s just say, occasionally it seemed like the writers thought of a new idea for the end of the film late in the game and chose to set it up by having a character say “by the way” and drop some random exposition or just flashback to something. Instead of weaving this new idea into the film artfully, they just found a good spot and spliced it in as an afterthought. It was jarring the couple of times it happened and felt forced when they tried to pay it off later.

One minor story problem I had has to do with the world itself. The movie has obvious analogies about immigration. The writers are not too heavy handed about it, but the comparisons themselves aren’t exactly apt. When homes for rent in the 1800s put up signs saying “Irish need not apply”, it was unfounded fear that caused their bigotry. In Elemental, when fire elements are unwelcome it’s because it’s been shown that they can be an actual danger to the unprepared other elements and their property. The fear has a foundation. Having a character basically saying “they just hate us because of who we are” is a cop out when you just burned up half their body as you were squeezing past them on the train! Like the love story, the immigration allegory feels superficial and more like an attempt to make the story deeper than it actually is.

Let’s move on to the best thing about the film: the animation. Elemental is absolutely gorgeous. When I said earlier that I didn’t have much desire to go see it again? Maybe I might just to focus more on the art! Element City is amazing and so much fun to explore. There are clever designs everywhere that reveal how each element goes about their lives. The characters are pretty great… at first. As the film goes on it does become a little obvious that maybe there’s not a lot of variety when it comes to making anthropomorphic wind, for example.

Thomas Newman’s score for the film is very nice. It’s not overwhelming, but doesn’t just provide atmosphere either. One interesting thing he did of note was give the fire element immigrants themes that sounds like they could have been influenced by their (fictional) cultural heritage. An original pop song by Lauv, Steel the Show, features but is entirely forgettable.

Oddly for a Pixar film, I wasn’t too impressed by the voice cast. Most characters were either unmemorable or mildly annoying. The two that did stand out were Leah Lewis as Ember and Ronnie del Carmen as her father. Their performances help sell the most interesting relationship in the film.

Before I wrap this up, I want to say that as a reviewer I get no joy out of criticizing the hard work of others. My favorite thing is to tell you why I love a movie! But Pixar is a great company and I really want to see them get back to their glory days. Unfortunately, I think they have a leadership problem. Remember the special features on old school Pixar DVDs that took you behind the scenes of their “brain trust”? This was a group that would help filmmakers hone their stories to their absolute best, feelings be damned! That mindset is gone, I believe. These days plots are more often than not based on the personal stories of filmmakers. And since the stories are personal, maybe there’s a fear of being offensive when trying to critique. So when real depth is replaced with superficiality, or when genuine emotion is replaced with shortcuts, there’s no one to say, “wait, we can do better” or even “I’m sorry but this isn’t working”. Until story is king again in Emeryville, good enough may be good enough for Pixar.

I want to stress that this is not a bad film. It’s just… fine. It’s filler for their theatrical release calendar, not a cinematic event. And Pixar is better than that. It’s especially frustrating because, like the three films before it, there’s the framework of a really great film here. It’s just missing a few important elements to take it to that next level.

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?

Pixar Animation
June 16, 2023
109 minutes
rated PG
directed by Peter Sohn