Let’s talk about Elemental.
PIXAR ARE IN CRISIS! At least that’s what the websites who desperately need you click on their links are telling you. And you can back it up, the last time that Pixar had a bona fide hit was Toy Story 4 which was released back in 2019. Obviously if you scratch beneath the surface, there’s a bit more grey to this. A pandemic happened in 2020, not sure if you can remember it, and that meant three Pixar films in a row went straight to Disney +. Soul, Luca and Turning Red were all lovely movies that probably would have made good money, but they all went straight to streaming, even though the latter two could realistically have been released in cinemas. Seriously, Turning Red came out after Spider-Man: Far From Home, that one was an awful decision. Then came Lightyear, a sure thing that flopped because it was way too complicated for kids. Now, we’re all worried about the state of Pixar, and if Elemental can put them back on track.
Ember is the daughter of a fire family who run a shop in the fire district of Elemental City. She is due to take it over but her anger issues affect her relationships with customers. However when a leak wrecks parts of the shop and exposes faults, she must team up with water person Wade to try and save the shop.
It’s very common for Pixar films to be allegories. The idea being that children will be taken in by the bright colours and engaging stories but adults will be able to identify there is a bigger and more important story going on. The hope is that children won’t realise this allegory but will take the lessons on unconsciously into their future lives. The story here is not a subtle allegory. With the way Ember’s family left their homeland to move to Elemental City, were judged but set up their own local business which was a dream of their's and now live in a district other people from their homeland have moved into. Yes, this is basically an immigrant story, in particular immigrants who have moved to New York City. There’s a lot about the feelings between fire people and water people in particular where both sides don’t particularly like each other very much. It’s another example of Pixar using a high end concept to explain current issues to children.
There is technically nothing wrong with the way Elemental does it. Their way of bridging the gap is through a love story between Ember and Wade. It’s nicely done in a rom com way, with effective jokes being made about the difference between water and fire while having it’s very sweet moments too. It does work as a person’s first rom com. The problem is that other films exist. And when you make an animated film about racial tensions in a high concept city where the people are other things, you are going to end up being compared to Zootopia. Yes, that tackles different parts of race relations and also looks at gender too. But it’s so much better at all of those things. The allegory is ok in Elemental, but it never really scratches below the surface. Zootopia did that and delivered a much more engaging movie as well. And when there’s something that does your thing much better than you, that’s a problem.
But the question is why is this movie not as good as Zootopia? Well, the characters aren’t as engaging. It feels like sometimes they are just their aims and goals. Ember wants to do right by her parents but also has her own dreams. Not only has this character been done a lot but it doesn’t feel like she has much more of a personality than that. Wade is probably worse. His personality is that he cries a lot. There’s a hint at the start that he has failed constantly in his life, but that is dropped and he is not a character in his own right. He is there to encourage Ember and be a narrative tool on her journey, not be a character in his own right. And when you are meant to be invested in a romance that is meant to be forbidden in a way, having two characters that feel more like constructs than people is a problem. I always have to mention for a supposed forbidden romance where both Ember and Wade are afraid of killing each other if they touch hands, most people are pretty accepting in a way where this sort of thing isn’t a complete oddity and that it does and has happened before.
There is plenty to like about the movie though. It is generally likable with it’s humour getting plenty of laughs, especially when they try to use the fact that they are elements and not just have it for their allegory, and there’s some really nice moments. If you put your kid in front of this movie while you try and do some other things, they will be absorbing some pretty nice messages about positivity, going for your dreams and also how expressing your emotions tends to be a good thing. There’s far more depth with Ember’s father Bernie, yes everyone has a pun based name you just have to deal with, than there are with many of the other characters. He has gained his own prejudices because of the prejudices shown against him and I did enjoy seeing his character develop over the film.
Elemental is not a bad movie. It has plenty of fun scenes, it’s lively throughout and while many of it’s themes has been done before and better, it’s not as if they are done badly here. But with Pixar struggling to make an impact in an era where Illumination print money with whatever they do and Dreamworks are making are comeback, this one does not cut the mustard. It feels too much like Pixar are trying to be Pixar, as if the new creatives in the studio have seen the recipe for what made their classics so good but haven’t realised those extra little bits that made them so special. So while this may technically have all the ingredients to be a classic, it falls short.