Featured Content | Movies

REVIEW – “Elemental”: Pixar’s Latest Love Story Stuck on Autopilot

FIRE AND WATER – Set in a city where fire-, water-, land-, and air-residents live together, Disney and Pixar’s “Elemental” introduces Ember, a tough, quick-witted and fiery young woman whose friendship with a fun, sappy, go-with-the-flow guy named Wade challenges her beliefs about the world they live in. Featuring the voices of Leah Lewis and Mamoudou Athie as Ember and Wade, respectively, “Elemental” releases on June 16, 2023. © 2022 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

The last time moviegoing audiences bore witness to a purely original film out of Pixar, the world was on the brink of a shutdown due to the COVID pandemic. Onward found itself in the crosshairs, having a few decent days before theater marquees went dark. Disney was quick to get it online and keep building an audience. And in turn, their streaming platform benefitted from the fresh content. Fast forward three years, the landscape for animation has evolved into a different animal. In between, three more memorable Pixar titles landed exclusively on streaming while waiting for the right time to break out on the big screen ahead of summer vacation. I remain forever salty Turning Red was robbed of a multiplex berth, just as the studio was embracing a stage in their storytelling where quirky met introspective. What Peter Sohn does with his treatment for Elemental follows that same echo, before falling a little flat in identifying its more profound or allegorical side. 

Sohn, in his second directorial effort following 2015’s The Good Dinosaur, is doing nothing less than keeping his head high, digging deep into the tension of his youth. A kid born in the states from immigrant parents, torn between following life’s passion for living more for generational expectations. A familiar strain granted a convincing soul, even when the result comes off with a range of middling hills and valleys. Such is life in a metropolis like Element City. It can be an adventure exploring the different neighborhoods, where earth, water and air can coexist with ease. Not so much fire, their community tends to stay in their own lane. A proud group of folks, not shying from their roots, but also apprehensive and untrustworthy of other types. Water, in particular; their beef with wet denizens might be apparent in the whole “elements don’t mix” belief. Cuts a bit deeper than that, and it only takes the opening prologue to see that real world disconnect, how certain people do not mix, until they can find a way. 

That’s the key idea with bright-burning young adult Ember (Leah Lewis), daughter to Bernie (Pixar story vet Ronnie Del Carmen) and Cinder (Shila Ommi), and likely heir to the family-owned shop. It’s an affectionate hole in the wall, with authentic food and knick knacks brought over after moving from their dwindling Fireland. As we see early, Ember clearly displays the business sense to eventually take over from her dad, but also a quick temper holding her back from the extra mile. Just as she’s learning the ropes, she crosses paths with a water guy named Wade (Mamoudou Athie), a young city inspector just doing his job, tracking some busted pipes (incited by Ember’s frustration) and a much larger issue involving city works that could cause the shop to close. Ember tries to convince Wade to overlook his bureaucratic responsibility, in exchange for attempting to repair the bigger mystery. In turn, the pair get to know each other a little better with each passing day. A romance strikes, so does the hesitation to break a familiar taboo, or expectation. 

Sohn, paired with writers John Hoberg & Kat Likkel (American Housewife) and Brenda Hsueh (Mr. Corman) see their work cut out for them. Hearts are in the right place, navigating an admittedly dense framing of Romeo and Juliet-style romance and a Zootopia-adjacent breakdown of cultural or societal generalizations in the scope of a big city. Neither are anywhere near subtle, one works more effectively over the other, the latter holding the former back from blossoming to its highest potential. The love story idea doesn’t brush past the eloquence of WALL-E, it runs on its own respective path. Ember and Wade’s bond more closely mirrors the wide gamut of those mid-2000s ill-paired rom-com star vehicles, like Down with Love or Lost in Translation. Even Lauv’s pop-friendly original track serving as the key link in Thomas Newman’s (A Man Called Otto) often-magical score is guilty of furthering the aesthetic.  

Scratching the surface, this pair wouldn’t stand much of a chance. The threat of steam rising need not factor in the same way as a stark difference in personality types. A good romance tale will air out those reasons why a pair’s never right for each other, until they prove the naysayers wrong. It’s the typical archetype Sohn is working with here, reapplying that to converge with a rather flat display of fulfillment versus sacrifice. The result lands on a discordant note sans harmony or an initial path to follow. Take out the burgeoning romance, along with the steady interference of Bernie and Cinder, and the situation would only grow worse over time, its thematic affairs unraveling, proposing statements that strive to be more than the faint juxtaposition they work with. 

And that’s a mild shame, when considering just how committed this cast and this band of characters are. Same for the fantasy realm they inhabit, even if Zootopia had better luck keeping its neighborhoods closer together. Or if Tomorrowland’s cityscape pulled off the fantastical in a tighter lens. Both Lewis and Athie are a delightful puppy love pair, building up each other’s comic knack and inner heart with unchallenged warmth. Their chemistry almost saves this film, as much as the highly visual worldbuilding. It all writes itself, as the pair explore parts of their community they wouldn’t otherwise wander about in, interacting with side characters not unlike the studio’s standard. Written with a certain depth, their mileage may vary; though at no time do they lean too hard into the conflict. They’re all casual observers, to an extent. Among others, there’s the smooth-talking dirt kid Clod (Mason Wertheimer), Wade’s cloud head boss Gale (a sharp-clawed Wendi McClendon-Covey), and even his doting mother Brook (a sublime Catherine O’Hara). They all can do no less than filter in and out of the story, without a chance to deepen that distinction of social class, even if the opportunity tends to present itself. O’Hara most fittingly stands out with only the smallest effort, in line with Ommi, both continuing a long-standing trend of supportive matriarchal figures. 

Sohn aims remarkably high and almost manages to tie everything together with that familiar Pixar knack. What he wants to emphasize in this personal life parallel only falters the experience before the pieces can fall into place. As best as they can, anyway, knowing its better ideas are pulled back by a very undercooked narrative. Elemental needs a lot of time to find its footing, achieving an ending that satisfies both heart and eyes, if its unique style template has any say. In that stretch of time, however, it’s impossible not to recognize the difficulty in making such an allegorical tale appear genuine and meaningful. When considering what the studio was capable of in eras past, to see them stumble on wobbly ground like this is concerning. Elemental could’ve been something special, and with how much I did enjoy myself, the evidence was present. Instead, it’s the efforts of a good animation house trying to chase a potentially relevant story, only to lose their grip as the moment shifts in their favor. (C+; 3/5) 

Also appearing in front of Elemental is the new short, Carl’s Date, featuring Ed Asner in his final acting credit as Up’s curmudgeonly Carl Frederickson. As the title precludes, Carl’s been asked out on his first romantic meetup, with Dug (Bob Peterson) preparing him for the big moment. Most Pixar shorts can end up either spectacular or mediocre. Seeing this pair together again was an admirable move, and there’s some joy to be found in Carl’s character evolution. A tad bittersweet, knowing this is effectively the final bow for that franchise. A flurry of emotions that feels a tad out of place as an amuse-bouche but is still charming in its bite size form. (3/5)

Elemental begins its wide release run with 3PM showtimes June 15; rated PG for some peril, thematic elements, and brief language, while Carl’s Date is rated G; 109 minutes.