Directed by Peter Sohn
Written by John Hoburg, Kat Likkel, Brenda Hseuh, and Peter Sohn
There's undoubtedly several biases I have about the new Pixar film, Elemental, and "it's Pixar!" isn't even one of them anymore, so the one that could be paramount is that I saw it in a theater literally alone, and this was great. It is also horrible: Elemental has done humiliatingly poorly for Pixar's corporate masters at Disney, and, if I'm not mistaken, is going to wind up the lowest-grossing film the studio has ever given a proper theatrical release (covid, you'll recall). It's going to do worse than The Good Dinosaur, once considered the floor, and while Elemental could still beat Lightyear, I forgot Lightyear even existed; I added this in later.
Another bias is my perennial one: my sympathy for the unloved tentpole. But usually I'm very keenly aware of that, for it fills me with burning resentment towards all other humans for having different tastes and priorities, which cannot stand. That didn't happen this time, even though, to plant my flag early, I'm sure that Elemental is my favorite Pixar movie in a while, and my second-favorite in half a decade—Soul is the only Pixar of the 2020s I think I like more—and, as I thumb back through, I don't find another Pixar I prefer till I hit 2018 and Incredibles 2. At least as importantly, I'm debating with myself whether it's my second-favorite Pixar original since they fell into mostly being a sequel factory, and yes, that means I'm wondering whether I like it more than 2015's Inside Out. (I know, but that third act's so lousy.) So that's maybe yet a third bias: the Disney animation empire is about the last place in large-budget filmmaking where actual original films still get made, and for that reason alone we should have wanted Elemental to do well. And that is important: it made more than a billion dollars and it's great, but when was the last time besides this paragraph you actually heard someone reminisce about Incredibles 2?
The problem there is that, from its very first trailers till today, everyone keeps asking, "is Elemental an original film in any meaningful way?", and it's as close to an objective statement as you get in the evaluation of art to answer that question with, "not really, it's the output of the Pixar magical world formula when the variable is 'elemental sprites,' and the people working the algorithm weren't even imaginative enough to consider any 'elements' beyond the classical tetrad of 'fire, water, earth, and air,'" something even your actual classical Greek philosophers, dithering around in their evidently limitless sprawl of free time, eventually found unsatisfying. Moreover, Elemental feels like the Pixar formula back-translated from the version of the Pixar formula sometimes used by other studios, particularly Walt Disney Animation Studios, so that if you scoffed in utter disbelief at the claim that two of its writers forwarded, that, no—honest—they'd never seen Zootopia, I wouldn't blame you, because it is very unbelievable indeed that it's a coincidence that in 2016 WDAS released Zootopia, i.e., "a bunch of animals live in a fantastic shining city and it's an allegory for bigotry," and then Pixar, after almost exactly the amount of time you'd expect it would take, made Elemental, i.e, "a bunch of elements live in a fantastic shining city and it's an allegory for bigotry."
The damned thing is I do believe them, because Elemental feels as if, very late in its development, somebody actually did have to tell them that Zootopia had already done "it's an allegory for bigotry, specifically patterned on Who Framed Roger Rabbit," leaving them scrambling to dump a conspiracy plot and restructure their movie the night before it was due. In any case, if the movie isn't evidence of a scramble, then the people that made it are just idiots, for while Elemental is painfully oblivious to a great many of the logical questions its concept raises, the biggest question of all, "why does the fire person ghetto need, or even have, running water?", does in fact get raised—it kicks off the plot!—before going on to remain resolutely unanswered during the whole next hour and a half, our protagonists largely disinterested in the "mystery" despite going through the motions of trying to "investigate" it. My bet—and I would bet actual money—is that the third act flood (and of course Firetown is threatened by a flood, I mean, c'mon) was originally an act of intentional genocide. But maybe someone finally realized, irrespective of Zootopia, that "intentional genocide" was a little much. Or maybe it's actually an allegory about environmental racism, and the movie not giving a shit merely reflects back upon us how shamefully we have not given a shit, so, actually, it's sophisticated. Well, I doubt it.
This is very amateurish, yet I don't think it's even what people dislike about it. I can patch that plot hole without thinking about it for more than thirty seconds—"we have running water because our hot vapors run steam turbines or something"—but no more than thirty seconds ever went into most aspects of this world's logistical functioning, which you'd think would've been half the fun of the scenario. I'm not angry at anybody this time: Elemental practically invites you to nitpick it, so who could blame anyone who responded to that invitation and treated it as a nitpicker's marathon? A viewer could, indeed, quite reasonably find more entertainment in asking sarcastic questions to the screen pretty much the entire time. For example: as the film is about bigotry with an emphasis on immigration, the flashback we eventually get to explain our heroine's family's migration effectively says "so there was a tornado in Topeka," and I responded (I was by myself!), "so that's why you moved to Shanghai?"
I'll try not to indulge this impulse too much (spoiler: I'll fail). Much of the problem, certainly, is that it's "Pixar formula" but Pixar has recently seemed to forget what its formula is: it's not just "magical world," it's "magical secret world"—to the side of our real one—which affords them a quaintness that tends to silence objections and makes it cuter when, e.g., the toys think they're people. But Pixar has been bizarrely insistent lately on doing actual speculative world-building, and they're blatantly much worse at it. The natural temptation would be to compare it to The Good Dinosaur and its shockingly half-assed speculative world-building, especially because they share a director in Pixar's unluckiest employee, Peter Sohn, but we could just as easily point to Onward, which is closer, though comparing it to Onward is good for Elemental, since Onward is so ghastly unimaginative in its "what if elves weren't magical? oh, it means they're not interesting" speculative world building that Elemental looks like a creative supernova. (And it's a small thing, but maybe it helps that Elemental's "more-or-less just guys" universe hasn't reached "cellphones" on its tech tree yet.) It's just so indifferent it's almost an act of hostility: there's a bit where a fire person is given a government pamphlet, the product of a society that the movie has already made clear is an ugly bag of mostly water. This is, like, such a gimme joke (but a good joke!) to make about the discriminatory society in which this fire person lives, and the absolute disinterest that it has in being welcoming. Elemental fails to make this joke: the fire person has no difficulty reading a pamphlet made... ba-dum-dum... of paper.
But, you know, I'm not sure how a pamphlet made of paper works with water people, either.
From the biggest to the smallest things, I said: world-building that doesn't seem to have even pondered the question of what "elemental people" fundamentally are when everything is, theoretically, "elements"; world-building that interfaces with the plot to posit that after years of fire folks being around, we could well have witnessed the very first time in history that any person made of water has ever realized that people made of consciously-directed flame could have economic value; world-building that interfaces with character without apparently thinking through why our female lead Ember (Leah Lewis) is supposed to find our male lead Wade (Mamoudou Athie) initially sexy during their meet-cute because having accidentally taken on too much water he briefly looks "buff" and "muscular," or why she seems to be mildly disappointed when he spins out his excess and returns to his "schlubbier" native state, because it doesn't realize anyone would ever ask, "why would beings made of elemental fire place value on musculature?" Because bad sitcom jokes don't literally write themselves yet, I suppose.
I should stop: the ever-present danger of Elemental is that once you start you don't stop until you've written 1500 words before mentioning its protagonists' names, or realizing that you left "preface" behind ages ago. Where it becomes cumbersome, of course, is that race allegory. I'm sympathetic to its fumblings, frankly, because I like allegories and you're always going to run into much the same kind of problem with them. But I realize it's more a matter of degree (not a pun, Goddamnit), and, sure, there's something a little off about a big ol' race allegory that decides the best way to explore the marginalization of immigrants is with a group whose differences make them almost unavoidably mutually destructive with the community they've joined, so that it's frankly not unreasonable if your response to this world's water supremacy is, "Well, of course they should be segregated." Honestly, I don't want to harp on it, but Zootopia had an easier go of it because its diversity allegory was more like "race or," multivalent enough to get through a story without tripping over its own metaphors. And I have no desire to rewrite a movie that obviously got written a dozen times already, but if I could have suggested a shift in emphasis, it might have been to barely bother with immigration and race and key in on how what the other thing the movie's about, first love—we don't have to use the word "virginity"—can be absolutely scary as hell, and how just the prospect of touching, let alone caressing, let alone other stuff, can feel like a matter of life and death. The thing is, who says it doesn't do that?
So: the film itself having excised whatever its mystery plot originally was, and having gotten accidentally exhaustive about its allegory, what that leaves us with are two things that are both pretty great: another Pixar tech demo so far off from the usual Pixar tech demo that "Pixar tech demo" isn't a good description, and a romantic coming-of-age story. And this is a bias I'm very happy to own, because as far as feature animation goes, it sure seems like a long time since the last one.
So, bass-ackwards as I've done this, let's finally visit "Element City," which is, I assume, some sort of UAE-style zone founded by the water people to bring in earth migrants and air migrants to work for them, because earth and air can readily coexist with water. (The earth people are dirt with vegetation both growing out of them and somehow seeming to be part of them, as horrifyingly demonstrated by the film's most hateful character, a Pixar rendition of Disney's "lascivious prepubescent scamp" stock type, when he plucks an armpit flower to pester Ember; the air people, meanwhile, are clouds, which is very disorienting insofar as clouds aren't elemental or even air, they're water vapor and dirt, essentially what happens when water and fire fuck in real life. I promise I'll stop.) Anyway: there are fire people, too, and washing ashore presently are Bernie (Ronnie del Carmen) and his wife Cinder (Shila Ommi), or at least these are the names they're given at the water person equivalent of Ellis Island when the immigration official has trouble with their quite-literally-unpronounceable "Firish" names. (It's a whiff of the world-building, once again—stop, stop, stop—but it's obvious enough I actually wonder if the concept was changed for whatever counts for "sensitivity" in this otherwise insensate movie, or if they just didn't bother to make the whole "Firish" language a creature of roaring, crackling, and whooshing sound design.)
Anyway anyway: Cinder is pregnant, and that leads us to Ember, who's raised as the heir apparent to her father's bodega, cornerstone of the fire person ghetto, and who's lived such a cloistered existence that she's never considered any other future even though she intensely hates working there. In one of the tantrums this hatred occasions, she accidentally blows up the plumbing, and out comes Wade, a privileged water slacker whose most recent job is as a safety inspector. (This isn't even "world-building," but this movie earnestly believes you can slack your way into municipal health & safety.) He is obliged to cite the store for its violations, but out of sympathy takes Ember's side in the matter as she tries to fight his system. Having been compelled to spend time with one another, they realize they've found a cross-elemental friendship or, perhaps, something more.
That is basic, but I am not temperamentally opposed to basic, and it gets a very big boost from the visual magic that Pixar's computers can wring out of the concept of "living elements." It's essentially an entire movie made of effects animation, and Pixar is, traditionally, damned good at effects animation. But I was surprised to discover that the trailer-showcased aspect of the film's design that I thought I'd have the most trouble with, the stylistic distinction of Ember specifically, and all the fire people generally, got on my good side as quickly as it did. (And just to mention it, the trailers don't do the film justice for a lot of reasons: the set "moments where Elemental falls flat on its fucking face" and the set "moments used in Elemental's marketing" are so close to completely overlapping, and the former so forced into their context, that you suspect the film's gooniest jokes literally might only be in the movie at all in order to generate the customarily obnoxious Disney/Pixar animated feature trailer.)
But I was speaking of the fire people's design, and I don't know exactly how good an idea this was race-allegory-wise, but they are very much the odd ones out, not your usual Pixar photorealism, but neither any ordinary kind of stylized CGI, instead being a collection of 2-D flat planes of fire effect laid on top of one another inside their (hey, intelligent world-building!) metallic garments, giving them what must be an intentionally-unconvincing suggestion of "dimensionality," so that these figures can kind of exist in a 3-D world but without ever surrendering their fundamental "cartoon fire" properties of abstraction, or their "syrup faces on a pancake" expressivity, or their strangeness. The wonder of it is that it stopped being off-puttingly strange very quickly, leaving only how much I admire, even if that admiration is a little strained, the enormous computing power that's being put to work here to render something that ultimately looks a lot like a drawing. It probably helps that the main interaction the fire people have with anybody who's not fire is Wade, a water person, and the artists maybe put the most thought of anything here into the water people, and into how they would suggest, in different ways than the fire people, 2-D water, without surrendering this water's 3-D construction or the ways that light—especially firelight—would interact with its fundamental properties of photorealism. I would not go so far as to call it a masterpiece of animation—the earth people are jokes about grass being hair, and the air people are pretty much just balls of particle effects—but if not a masterpiece, it still has (I'm afraid this is a pun) elements of such a thing. I've complained about thoughtlessness, but that is somewhat relative to some ideal version of Elemental: there's a fun chase to kick things off that uses fire and water in some pretty spectacular ways. As for that refraction of light through water I mentioned, that drives the scene coming about halfway where I managed to stop having continual objections to the movie, and it is, not coincidentally, probably the cleverest thing in it; it's also probably not a coincidence that it confirms Wade and Ember's romance.
And ultimately I think that works better than the bad press Elemental's gotten would indicate; it's true that it is a movie that works crucially better if you attend to the animation that expresses these characters' feelings, and not so much to the dialogue's attempts at the same thing. It's not all bad, but it's placeholdery and Lewis and Athie spend a lot of time not rising above the level of placeholder VAs; that is not to say, however, that they spend the entire time. Lewis gets some choice moments, and Athie is engaged in something fairly interesting, a genuinely "watery" character who spends a lot of time kind of sucking before an accumulation of moments demonstrating the sterner stuff beneath the squishiness finally managed to get me rooting for him after all. It's actually one thing that I believe will improve on a rewatch (I spent a non-negligible amount of time thinking "you know, I'm not sure I completely enjoy this parody of white people as walking tear ducts"), but between the one part of the screenplay that didn't get busted and reassembled, so that it still works the way it ought to, and Athie's commitment to resolving Wade's contradictions, and the splendid moments where the animation just takes over completely—and a pretty wild Thomas Newman score, just to get that in here somewhere—it wound up captivating me like a Pixar movie hasn't in a while.