Credit: Disney/Pixar
Blockbuster Beat by Andrew Dignan Featured Film

Elemental — Peter Sohn

June 20, 2023

Long the standard bearer in American animation, specializing in four-quadrant hits that thread the needle between entertaining small children and reducing their parents to tears, Pixar Animation Studios has had a rough last few years. With the output already diluted by shareholder-demanded but creatively unnecessary sequels, prequels, and whatever the hell Lightyear was supposed to be, the semi-autonomous, computer-animated division of Disney was hit especially hard by the pandemic. The hugely expensive, long-in-production films coming out of Emeryville, California, have been repeatedly treated as sacrifices to the streaming gods: Soul, Luca, and Turning Red all bypassed theaters and were sent straight to Disney+, further devaluing them as “content” meant to distract young viewers. Directed by Peter Sohn (The Good Dinosaur), Elemental is the first wholly original Pixar film to play theaters since Onward’s abbreviated run in the early days of Covid-19, and it arrives with the pedigree of having closed out this year’s Cannes Film Festival. On the face of it, the film is a return to the original, character-driven stories of the late, halcyon days of Inside Out and Coco. However, its problems underscore a larger, more fundamental problem than too many spin-offs or a depreciation of the theatrical experience. With each new film, Pixar’s storytelling is getting more graceless and obvious. The incorporation of extended metaphors has become increasingly tortured, putting plot in service of allegory rather than the other way around. In the past, what made these films so affecting was how discreetly they’d play on the viewers’ emotions while speaking to universal truths; their lessons passing by undetected if you weren’t particularly looking for them. But good luck missing the point here.

Set in Elemental City, a fantastical metropolitan populated by anthropomorphized versions of the four dominant elements that make up the planet — earth, wind, water, and fire — Elemental is, at its core, the tale of star-crossed lovers. We’re first introduced to the Lumens, with Bernie (voiced by longtime Pixar story supervisor Ronnie del Carmen) and Cinder (Shila Ommi) arriving in Elemental City from “the old country.” Literally walking-talking balls of gaseous flames trying to coexist alongside tree-like earth and ephemeral wind, the Lumens find assimilating to the new world particularly challenging in light of their volatility and the fact that simply leaning on the wrong object can set it ablaze. With Cinder heavily pregnant — as with most things in the film, it’s best to not to think too long about how any of this is meant to work — the Lumens buy a home in the undesirable part of town which, over time, becomes a thriving shop they own and operate. The neighborhood around it, meanwhile, becomes a booming cultural center for the fire community. Years later, as Bernie gets on in years, he dangles ownership of the shop — which specializes in punny, fire-related sundries — in front of his now adult daughter, Ember (Leah Lewis), who’s poised to carry on the family business… if only she could keep her volcanic temper in check.

After blowing her top and destroying the basement of the building, Ember comes face-to-face with Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie), a deeply empathetic city inspector and “water-person” who was literally sucked up into the building’s pipes and deposited in the Lumen family store. Prone to sobbing at the drop of a hat — water being an integral part of saline and all — Wade can’t help but note copious code violations around the shop; he’s compelled to dutifully document his findings and report the store for immediate closure, but he does feel super bad about it. What follows is a frenzied chase across Elemental City, with Ember, long reluctant to leave her own kind, forced to confront her prejudices and venture outside her insular bubble to try and save the family business. Yet the more time she spends around Wade, the more she comes to realize how much the world has to offer beyond her narrow experiences and the demands of her family, opening up new professional and, yes, even romantic possibilities.

Structurally, Elemental falls into the well-trod “what if animals/inanimate objects/spiritual & emotional constructs had developed their own intricate society?” formula favored by animated films, and so much of what passes for invention here is found in its unique world-building and capitalization on the constraints and opportunities inherent in the premise. The film makes considerable hay exploiting the physics and properties of the elements, such as Ember inadvertently transforming a parasol into a hot air balloon or Wade being able to covertly “deliver himself” to Ember with his mass dispersed across half a dozen flower arrangements in vases. Simply traversing this world as an open flame or a cumulus cloud presents constant logistical challenges and opportunities for physical comedy, and the film doesn’t disappoint in that respect. Nor does its conception of Elemental City as a sprawling metropolis of glass skyscrapers, dirigibles, low-lying neighborhoods, and canals, with the film emphasizing vibrant colors and spatial depth. (Elemental is being released in select theaters in 3D, but it’s fair to wonder whether that would ultimately prove redundant while also potentially dulling its frequently breathtaking color palette.)

Yet for all its visual splendor, there’s something rather pat and even patronizing in the film’s thinly veiled message about the othering of different ethnicities (pardon: different elements), especially as this subject matter was already explored relatively adroitly in Disney’s own Zootopia less than a decade ago. The diversity of the vocal cast and the diffusion of its cultural signifiers precludes any one group from having too great a claim to being singled out. That said, the film doesn’t exactly shy from references to the immigrant experience — arguably the most touching moment in the film is an onscreen dedication to Sohn’s late parents, who themselves immigrated from Korea. With its preoccupation about not dating “outside your element” (Ember’s grandmother’s deathbed request of her: “marry fire”) and Bernie becoming incensed at the idea of fire culture being “watered down” (literally in this instance), it’s all but impossible to not interpret the film as an earnest plea to move past our differences and bust down racial and ethnic divides.

Far be it for me to splash cold water on the notion of tolerance in these contentious times, but this point tends to run headlong into the film’s own internal logic. Yes, we can appreciate that Ember’s desire to honor her immigrant parents and preserve their culture might give her pause about moving out of the old neighborhood or dating someone outside her own community, but also, if she gets wet she will literally be extinguished and presumably die. Likewise, there’s an admirable strain of wide-eyed liberalism in Wade trying to be part of Ember’s world (even choking down all that fiery food!), and yet, if he and Ember cohabitate in a small room with poor ventilation, he will evaporate out of existence (we’ll leave it to the science nerds to debate whether he should actually be transformed into vapor). One can applaud the film for combating bigotry while recognizing that a visit with the in-laws shouldn’t be a death-defying proposition. Or that physical intimacy would function much the same as walking across a bed of hot coals (this is surely the only Disney animated film that features an oblique “just the tip” reference). Elemental is no doubt well-intentioned, but it remains deeply confused and belabored in its messaging and conception, working its way backwards from “can’t we all just get along?”

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 24

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