Earth, fire, wind, water, heart. Go Planet!
Elemental should never have made it out of the concept brainstorming phase. Water, fire, earth, and air elementals all living in one city, with the respective element acting as a proxy for class and race, like an even wonkier Zootopia or Z-O-M-B-I-E-S? It’s quite dumb, and it sounds like something ChatGPT would spit out if you asked it for some Pixar movie ideas.
But Pixar has had plenty of dubious premises in their three decades, and some of them have even resulted in masterpieces. (A gutter rat likes to cook fancy French cuisine?) Pixar’s imperial phase is long over, though. In fact, we can safely say it ended more than half of Pixar’s lifetime ago. It’s honestly becoming redundant to point out just how fallow Pixar’s recent streak has become — how many of its movies have left an imprint since 2010? Three?
What we’re left with is the questionable execution of a questionable premise. What really shocks me is how mediocre the script is. I just don’t see how a professional Hollywood animation studio invests upwards of $100 million in a project like this and ends up with a screenplay so desperately in need of a couple of revisions. Director and writer Peter Sohn, who also created The Good Dinosaur, packed a hundred wacky worldbuilding ideas into as many screenplay pages. He desperately needed a “no”-man: Someone to help him trim and refine the concepts rather than adding more and more. “Kill your darlings” is what we call it in the screenwriting process when we whittle down ideas we’re fond of that don’t help the final product. I almost didn’t believe that this was by Sohn, as The Good Dinosaur’s main problem was having too simple and slow a story that could’ve been punched up with a few more twists — the exact opposite issue of Elemental.
I do like Elemental a bit more than it may sound thus far, though. For one, it truly is unique. The flipside of having a batshit story world is that, almost by definition, you’re doing something a little fresh. The film’s “gee whiz” details — the “darlings” — don’t significantly impact the story but add plenty flavor. For instance, the way air people travel to and from the city by inflating and deflating blimps and balloons is a nifty idea that has no consequence on Elemental’s story or character motivations, but it’s cool to watch for 10 seconds. Elemental is simply drowning in these kinds of touches.
The movie also boasts some impressive animation. The character animation of the fire people, in particular, is a stroke of genius. Their texture is always flickering and translucent, and their facial features look like living charcoal smudges. The water people are well-animated too, even if they are precisely what you’d expect: humanoid-shaped water globules.
There’s a problem of lacking a clear vision, even with the animation, though. It’s maximal and over-busy. Individual bits look nice, but the world never feels like a whole. Maybe that’s intentional — real life cities are patchworks of people and architectural styles and histories, not a coherent utopia. But it feels more like a lack of discipline — lots of small, messy ideas that I can’t really succinctly describe.
Thankfully, Thomas Newman helps with the flavor quite a bit. His score is excellent, bringing in some Latin and Asian influences while still keeping the sentimental streak we’d expect in a movie like this. As incoherent as the rest of the movie sometimes is, the score gives a terrific unified feeling to the film.
The story is a romantic comedy with shades of generational trauma and immigrant struggles. Ember (Leah Lewis) is a fire elemental with an anger problem, poised to take over her parents’ bodega-style shop called The Fireplace in a neighborhood that’s Definitely Not a Metaphor for Chinatown. One day, she loses her temper, causing a flood from an old pipe, which prompts city inspector and water elemental Wade (Mamoudou Athie) to write up the shop. Ember tries to persuade Wade not to report the violations, which could shut down her family’s business. This initiates a chain of events that gradually morphs into a romantic comedy between the short-tempered Ember and the sentimental Wade. (Plug in your element-related pun of choice — They have great chemistry? There’s steam when they’re together?)
Elemental frequently reminded me of last year’s Everything Everywhere All at Once, another story using the fantastical to explore the immigrant experience and reflect on how love transforms us. It also feels heavily influenced by Pete Docter — there’s an extended postmodern universe setup a la Monsters Inc., and the climactic flood is reminiscent of the chaotic chase scenes in the third acts of Up and Inside Out. There are also echoes of Turning Red from last year: an idiosyncratic coming-of-age story about a young woman navigating a culture clash, albeit not as bespoke or playful.
For whatever reason, though, Elemental didn’t land for me the way those did. Maybe it’s that it’s trying to juggle too many themes, or maybe that it all feels narratively and conceptually half-baked. For example, the movie can’t decide on its central symbolic motif — an “arc symbol.” The Fireplace houses an ever-burning family flame that’s representative of family bonds. But the Firish (yes, I’ve neglected to mention that’s the official name of fire avatars) also share a sacred bowing gesture that’s a sign of respect deep respect and which the film frequently revisits. One or both of these — eternal flame; deep bow — might have been unnecessary, especially when there’s also a recurring image of family members making burnt snack balls that achieves the same effect in an understated way. This problem of excess symbolizes the film’s clumsiness: as a race allegory, as a deconstruction of class privilege, as a piece of worldbuilding, and even as a coherent narrative.
Kudos to Sohn and Pixar for attempting something original. It’s comforting to know that this became a word-of-mouth sensation in a way that the similarly messy and floppy Strange World never did. (I still harbor a soft spot for that one, even if I might have rated it too generously given that I view it and Elemental similarly.) Elemental is now deemed “profitable” by Disney executives. Who knows? We might see a sequel down the line. Perhaps Pixar will delve into the periodic table next.