Elemental Movie Review (2023)
Pixar, at its pinnacle, has been synonymous with crafting ingenious, endearing, and exceptionally original films that resonate with the heart and ignite the imagination. However, recent times have seen the renowned animation studio, responsible for captivating masterpieces like “Toy Story,” “Ratatouille,” “Up,” and “Inside Out,” struggle to maintain its unparalleled standard of brilliance.
The contemporary iteration of Pixar grapples with a twofold challenge – an overemphasis on revisiting past successes through a slew of sequels (“Toy Story 4,” “Incredibles 2,” “Lightyear”), and a thematic focus on characters undergoing animal transformations in recent original releases (“Soul,” “Luca,” “Turning Red”). This recurring motif of transformation into animals, while representative of the experience of feeling different, paradoxically submerges its diverse protagonists beneath fur or scales for the majority of their narratives. Furthermore, the studio seems to have temporarily misplaced its once-vaunted mastery of execution, which enabled it to navigate intricate high-concept ideas with consummate ease.
A case in point is “Elemental,” the latest offering from Disney and Pixar, which exemplifies the studio’s current struggle to recapture its initial enchantment. The film’s world-building falters in service of a predictable narrative that fails to honor the animators’ skill. The setting, a bustling metropolis reminiscent of New York, intertwines natural elements – earth, fire, water, air – as symbolic representations of distinct social strata. However, the film stumbles as it grapples awkwardly with the racial allegory that underpins its central metaphor. The pacing is erratic, and the writing’s flat predictability is evocative of a Pixar film written by an AI algorithm, devoid of depth and coherence.
Premiered as the closing-night feature at the 76th Cannes Film Festival before its mid-June release in the United States, “Elemental” envisions a bustling urban landscape akin to Disney’s anthropomorphic “Zootopia.” In this analogous world, the exploration of racial discrimination simplifies into a problematic “predator and prey” dynamic, echoing a similar reduction of complexities in Element City. Despite director Peter Sohn’s explanation that his Korean heritage and desire to explore assimilation fuel some creative decisions, the film’s world-building parallels Zootopia’s uneasy treatment of systemic issues. The contrasting elements, analogous to foxes and rabbits, perpetuate the same unsettling dynamics.
“Elemental” portrays water people enjoying their privileged status in sleek high-rises and splashing through grand canals, their surroundings tailored to their fluid forms. In contrast, fire folk reside in Firetown, a community rich in East Asian, Middle Eastern, and European cultural references. However, the film’s treatment of these elements lacks depth, relegating earth and air to the periphery of the narrative. Background elements remain unexplored, and the intricate interactions between the various components of Element City are disappointingly superficial.
The story centers on Ember Lumen (voiced by Leah Lewis), a second-generation immigrant working in her father’s bodega. Ember’s fiery temperament and unique abilities lead her to team up with city inspector Wade (Mamoudou Athie) to address a pressing issue. Their burgeoning romance, fraught with the tension of incompatible elements, becomes a central focus. Yet, despite its predictability, their relationship offers a captivating respite from the narrative’s convolution. The animation effectively captures the characters’ distinct qualities, with Ember’s fiery emotion and Wade’s fluid form rendered with finesse.
Nonetheless, the film’s potential is stifled by formulaic storytelling. Memorable sequences, such as an underwater garden and a hand-drawn animation depicting a love story, momentarily distinguish “Elemental.” However, these fleeting moments fail to elevate the film beyond the familiar Pixar mold. Absent is the awe-inspiring aesthetic innovation evident in classics like “Finding Nemo” and “Wall-E,” except for Thomas Newman’s captivating score, which transcends cultural boundaries more effectively than the film’s treatment of immigrant communities.
In conclusion, “Elemental” epitomizes Pixar’s current struggle to rekindle its former enchantment. While momentary sparks of brilliance are present, the film’s lackluster execution, conventional narrative, and underdeveloped world-building render it forgettable once the credits roll. Despite its aspirations, “Elemental” remains a fleeting burst of combustion that dissipates from memory upon exiting the theater.
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