- Directed by Peter Sohn
- Written by John Hoberg, Kat Likkel and Brenda Hsueh
- Featuring the voices of Leah Lewis, Mamoudou Athie and Catherine O’Hara
- Classification G; 110 minutes
- Opens in theatres June 16
Is Pixar dead? Going by the aggrieved chatter in the film community, the Disney-owned animation giant seems to be if not six feet under then certainly on life support (but, you know, the kind of cutesy anthropomorphic CGI life support system that’s voiced by John Ratzenberger).
Onward, Soul, Luca, Lightyear – Pixar’s filmography over the past three years has not exactly warmed the hearts of audiences nor jolted the minds of critics. And then there’s the fact that the studio’s last universally acclaimed title, 2022′s Turning Red, was sent straight to Disney+ to boost pandemic-era subscription metrics. But as with most Hollywood narratives, the so-called demise of Pixar is coloured with sketchy half-truths.
Onward was a wan repackaging of fantasy tropes, sure, but Soul was a rewarding experiment in existentialism. While slight in story, Luca was a largely sun-kissed delight. And I’ll continue to go to bat for the unfairly maligned Lightyear – in concept a crass franchise extension but in practice a thrilling and adventurous bit of mythmaking. Putting aside the rushed, and in retrospect embarrassing, decision to punt Turning Red to streaming, Pixar has proven more often than not that it is dedicated to layered, curious, beautiful family-friendly storytelling. In a world of overextended Minions and brain-dead Super Mario siblings, I’ll take my chances with that hopping desklamp.
Which is why I’m going to – very cautiously, very politely – applaud Elemental, the studio’s latest production. Heartfelt in tone, imaginative in scope and rendered with a seemingly endless well of aesthetic wit, the romantic-comedy is a worthy addition to the Pixar canon … until the characters start speaking.
A candy-coloured allegory for the tensions of immigration and urban racism, the film is set in the fantastical Element City, where water-people, land-people and air-people live a kind of upper-class existence. But ghettoized off in a corner are the fire-people, largely shunned and left to form their own insular community. This includes the family of Ember (voiced by Leah Lewis), a young fire-woman whose parents moved to Elemental City before she was born in the hopes of building a better life for themselves.
But just as Ember is set to take over her parents’ store – which specializes in incendiary delicacies from the fire-people’s homeland – she has a meet-cute with the water-dude Wade (Mamoudou Athie), a wildly optimistic city inspector who accidentally puts the shop in the crosshairs of Elemental City’s bureaucracy.
It’s When Water Met Sally, with dashes of Moonstruck (Cloudstruck?) and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (Guess Who’s Flowing to Dinner? Listen, these puns aren’t easy), which is perhaps too ambitious of a thing to filter through the lens of a kid’s flick. And there is the sense that, especially in the latter half once the world-building has been established, the filmmakers have mixed their metaphors into this melting pot of a movie.
It doesn’t help that the screenwriters – three are credited, but as usual for a Pixar production, this has been put through every stem of the studio’s brain trust – offer up some truly flat dialogue, with Ember and Wade trading banter that is almost entirely exposition. Elemental is also desperately in need of a dozen more laugh-out-loud (or laugh-at-all) moments, its two best gags stolen from The Simpsons and Zootopia.
But director Peter Sohn (The Good Dinosaur) fights mightily to dazzle and enchant whenever possible, his metropolis a wildly inventive world that is bursting with detail and care. If Elemental was only made so that Pixar could show off just how intricately it animates water – notoriously the most challenging thing to cartoonify – then the film would have been worth the many years and hundreds of millions it took to produce. Yet Sohn and his team go several steps further, delivering a setting whose every facet seems to have been considered from multiple, even exhausting angles (how do the fire-people wear clothes without burning them? Well, it’s all chain-mail attire).
Will kids make Ember and Wade as household names – and toy-aisle staples – as Woody or Lightning McQueen? Almost certainly not – Elemental feels like a one-and-done effort. But I’d rather watch a studio be bold and miscalculate than make a risk-free bet. Better to be burned than boring.