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‘Elemental’ Review: Pixar’s Timely High-Concept Bonanza Underwhelms



Everyone has their favorite Pixar movie — mine is Cocowith Wall-E and Ratatouille very close seconds — and no matter which title you prefer in the game-changing animation studio’s catalog, almost every one of them feels unique. (The Cars and Toy Story sequels aside, although even some of those were fresh and original).

But in the last few years, Pixar, which Disney purchased for more than $7 billion back in 2006, has failed to deliver the goods like it used to. Soul was ambitious but played too much like a jazzy riff on Inside Out. Luca was fun in the Italian sun but also too slight. Lightyear was an unnecessary spinoff of a great franchise that should have ended as a trilogy.


The Bottom Line

Too elementary.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Closing Night)
Release date: Friday, June 16
Cast: Leah Lewis, Mamoudou Athie, Ronnie Del Carmen, Shila Ommi, Wendi McLendon-Covery, Catherine O’Hara
Director: Peter Sohn
Screenwriters: John Hoberg, Kat Likkel, Brenda Hsueh

1 hour 42 minutes

Which brings us to Elemental. The studio’s 27th feature, has, well, all the elements that make up a great Pixar movie: A high-concept pitch that could only be rendered via dazzling state-of-the-art computer animation; a serious overarching theme about ethnic strife and racial tolerance; humor for both kids and adults, although this one is more geared toward the 10-and-under set; a plot that hits all the right beats at exactly the right time.

It’s all there — so much so that Elemental may be the first work from Pixar to feel like it was generated entirely by AI. Not just the AI ​​computing all the imagery, but literally an algorithm putting together a perfect Pixar movie. The problem, of course, is that the originality is mostly absent here, as is the thematic risk-taking that drove films like Wall-E (the planet almost dies!) or Inside Out (Bing Bong dies!) or Coco (people die!).

In Elemental, Pixar’s usual ambitious leap into the unknown is more of a safe dip into calm waters — water being one of the four elements driving the story, although only two of them really count here — and much about it seems extremely familiar. This doesn’t mean it won’t be at least a modest summer hit when Disney releases it mid-June, following a premiere in Cannes on the festival’s closing night. But the wow-factor has kind of been lost at this point, and what we’re left with feels like just another Pixar movie.

It takes roughly a minute or two to realize that the film, which was directed by Peter Sohn (The Good Dinosaur — a mid-level Pixar) and written by John Hoberg, Kat Likkel and Brenda Hsueh, is one giant, very expensive ($200 million, to be exact) metaphor for immigration and exclusion. Sohn said the story was inspired by his own family’s experiences as Koreans arriving in New York, a place that has been morphed here into an eye-popping megalopolis called Element City — basically the Big Apple populated by the likes of Earth, Wind, Fire and Water, with the latter dominating the others.

Arriving by boat in the city’s equivalent of Ellis Island, an immigrant couple, Bernie Lumen (Ronnie Del Carmen) and his wife, Cinder (Shila Omni), have come all the way from their home country of Fireland to give a new life to their baby daughter, Ember (Leah Lewis). Without much in the way of money or connections, and as members of the Fire minority, they end up in the working-class neighborhood of Fire Town, where Bernie opens a grocery store called Fireplace that caters to other Fire people like himself.

If you’ve already had enough of all these wink-wink names and rather facile jokes, there’s lots more to come in a movie that strives to find humor in its parallel urban universe of walking conflagrations, blobs of H2O, floating cloud puffs and what basically look like old tree stumps. (Earth is definitely given short shrift here, with most of its characters coming across as dull as dirt. Or is that just another pun?)

A quick opening montage — de rigueur in most Pixar movies ever since Up — shows Ember growing up to loving parents in a community far from the city’s water-controlled power centers. Her father wants her to take over the family business, but by the time she’s in her 20s, Ember’s explosive temper tantrums reveal she may want something else out of life. When a city inspector, the goofy and liquidy Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie), unexpectedly passes through the store’s plumbing, it’s not really love at first sight, especially after he writes up citations that may shut the fireplace down.

But as Paula Abdul famously predicted, opposites attract, and so Ember and Wade start to grow fond of each other, even if they can’t make any physical contact because, well, you get it. The Pixar story algorithm takes over at that point, with the two facing all sorts of obstacles as they fall in love despite their inherent differences, pushing Ember to hide the relationship from a proud father who prefers her to stay back in Fire Town.

Water has always been a tricky substance for animators, and what Sohn and his team do with it, especially once Ember starts visiting downtown Elemental City with Wade, can be impressive to behold. The wide-ranging color palette includes a gazillion shades of blue, turquoise and green that this partially colorblind critic felt almost assaulted by, and the whole setting looks like Shanghai’s Pudong district dipped into a giant aquarium. Another innovation involves characters whose faces and bodies are filled with constant internal motion, whether swarming with flames or churning with fluids.

That, and a few charmingly funny sequences — especially a visit that Ember and Wade pay to the latter’s overbearing bougie mom (Catherine O’Hara) — cannot, however, compensate for the film’s major flaw, which is that it feels entirely predictable. Maybe we’ve all seen too many Pixar movies by now, and so if Element were the studio’s first-ever release instead of its umpteenth one, it would seem more surprising, more daring.

That said, the immigrant parable that Sohn and his army of animators have created does feel both worthy and timely, especially at a moment when America seems to be sliding into a xenophobia unseen since perhaps the 1920s. By far the most moving element in Element is the character of Bernie, a hardworking foreigner doing everything he can to support his family in the big city, breaking his back in his modest minimart while striving to preserve some of the traditions of his homeland.

His story proves more involving than a romance between Ember and Wade that goes exactly where you think it will, underlining the many hardships, whether personal or societal, faced by people of different races trying to stick together. Had Pixar perhaps taken more risks with that plotline, they might have pleased a smaller demographic than such a project requires to be profitable, but they might also have delivered a movie on par with some of their best work. Instead, the elements all fit perfectly into place — so much so that water eventually puts out fire, and we’re left without much of an impression.

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