While opinions have certainly been mixed on Pixar‘s recent output, few would argue that the last few years haven’t been a downturn for the studio. Even movies that have received good reviews don’t quite feel up to the level of their greatest works. Though it has some good ideas and a surprisingly romance-heavy approach, the merely decent Elemental doesn’t represent a break from that trend.
With an idea that is vaguely a cousin to Inside Out and Soul, the film follows a universe inhabited by personifications of the four traditional elements: fire, air, water, and earth. The protagonist is Ember, a fire woman carrying the weight of her parent’s expectations to take over a shop selling fire-related products. They live in Element City, a place where persons of all four elements have come together to live. Fire is the youngest element and the most ostracized.
As one might guess, this allows the fire people to be coded as immigrants, and the film becomes a metaphor for immigration, prejudice, and finding acceptance, both at a personal and societal level. Elemental has some good ideas to explore. Ember feels like she has to carry on her father’s legacy, but wants to carve her own path. Her character also suffers from a fiery temper and struggles to empathize with others.
This is potentially rich thematic material, and it oftentimes works to create strong emotional points. But the biggest flaw is inconsistency. There is inconsistency in the film’s world-building, its pacing, and its storytelling. The result is a film that feels like many disparate elements struggling to work together — an appropriate metaphor if there was one.
We don’t find out about Ember’s desires until fairly late into the film, meaning most of that conflict is stuffed into a short amount of screentime. The film’s immigrant story is also unevenly coded. At times, it feels like the fire people are drawing from Asian-American experiences. They’re animated to have a vaguely Asian appearance, their fictional fire language draws on Asian-ish sounds, and their design aesthetic feels eastern. But other times in the film, the language used feels more coded to the racial struggles that black Americans face. This attempt to make it more universal isn’t inherently a bad idea, but it ends up feeling confusing as to what real-world parallels we’re supposed to draw.
The overall world-building of Element City also feels undercooked. There are fun moments where certain vehicles and buildings are designed with elemental people in mind. Air people travel via blimps, and their own airy bodies keep the vehicles afloat. Water persons have water filling their homes, and there are jokes of a sexual nature as we see two earth people “pruning” each other.
Aside from these moments here and there, it doesn’t feel like a fully-realized system the way Inside Out did. The dynamics of the world don’t make total sense, and the prejudice against fire people feels underdone. The film shows us once or twice in jarring flashbacks about how fire people can be dangerous due to burning things. The same issues would seem to exist with the other elements, but the film ignores these implications in order to focus on the messy metaphor it wants.
The biggest conflict comes between the film’s two main plots: Ember trying to control her temper, and her romance with a water person, Wade. The central thread of Elemental winds up being the romance between Ember and Wade. This leads to some touching moments, despite the predictable nature of a “fire and water don’t mix” setup. The voice actors for Ember and Wade, Leah Lewis and Mamoudou Athie, bring lots of personality to their characters and manage to develop a chemistry that is palpable.
While at times this works well with Ember’s attempts to finding herself, ultimately the film tells us that she mellows out rather than truly earning or showing it. The movie wants us to see that her relationship with Wade has taught her empathy, but there’s such a hard line between the romance scenes and the Ember changing scenes that it doesn’t blend together as well as one hopes.
Elemental still feels mostly like a win for the studio. It’s not as strong as Inside Out or Soul, but it has some neat ideas, a touching romance, and enough emotional moments that it has the Pixar hallmarks. The animation is gorgeous, with closeup shots of the characters showing off how well designed they are. One just wishes more time was spent refining the script, because it feels like Elemental had the potential to be one of Pixar’s finest.