All Wet

The elements don’t mesh in Pixar’s ‘Elemental’

Opulent animation can’t disguise the storytelling sloppiness in Elemental, a broken metaphor of a movie grounded in a “fire and water” mismatch that Pixar pawns off as an “opposites attract” romance. If you’re dealing with magnetic poles or ionic charges, then definitely yes. But with earth’s four elements—earth, air, fire, and water—there is no attraction or repulsion. Elements aren’t adversarial; they’re fundamentally interdependent and interwoven. Air feeds fire, water nourishes earth. Too much of one can overwhelm the other, sure, but in moderation they’re fundamentally foundational to and transformational for each other. Instead of delving deep and coming up with a compelling tale rooted in that essence, Elemental wants to equate the four elements with immigrants and turn their interaction into a parable about intolerance. Huh?

ELEMENTAL ★★(2/5 stars)
Directed by: Peter Sohn
Written by: John Hoberg, kat Likkel, Brenda Hsueh
Starring:Leah Lewis, Mamoudou Athie, Ronnie del Carmen, Shila Ommi, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Catherine O’Hara, Mason Wertheimer, Joe Pera, Matt Yang King
Running time: 109 mins

“Elements don’t mix,” one character insists. But they do, all the time and in wonderous ways. This movie insists that earth, air, fire, and water are uneasy co-habitants of a functional and technologically advanced but inherently prejudiced metropolis called Element City. “Marry Fire” is the dying wish of a fire grandma who doesn’t want her kind breeding with others. “Kiss me, I’m Firish” reads a t-shirt. “Water—always trying to water us down,” grumbles a paranoid character who hates water people. It all feels forced and empty, a flawed conceit whose inherently cracked concept veins its way through all the visual splendor.

But what splendor: Pixar, as usual, brings the most immersive photorealistic animation to life, cleverly embellishing its visions with ravishing details and nuance. Water people have hair formed from constant tidal waves endlessly crashing and foaming in a controlled pompadour, while their mustaches are self-contained waterfalls. Fire people wear metal clothes, air people are puffy little clouds who, as their crowds disembark and fill up a zeppelin, make it deflate and inflate. Earth people are mounds of dirt with rock teeth and flowers for armpit hair. It’s delightful to watch.

The Pixar puns are top-notch, too, especially in Firetown, where most of the movie takes place. The patriarch and his wife are named Bernie and Cinder Lumen (Ronnie del Carmen and Shila Ommi); their daughter is Ember (Leah Lewis). Bernie owns and operates a bodega-style café called The Fireplace, where he sells food like Kol-nuts, hot logs, and lava java. Cinder is a sort-of psychic who can smell true love in the fire community and calls herself a “Match Maker.” She also advises the hot-headed Ember to be “calm like a candle” and, when her daughter acts sluggish, she tells her to “get off your lazy ash!” And in their store, they’re wary of water people getting things wet. “You splash it, you buy it!” they warn soggy customers. It’s all marginally enchanting.

And then Ember blows her top in the store’s basement, which damages the building’s water pipe system. Why does Firetown have a water pipe system? Makes no sense, fire people clearly don’t like water and have created a community that’s completely fire-based. But fine, they have a water pipe system. The broken pipes leak everywhere, and suddenly out of the leaky chaos a water person emerges named Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie). He’s a building inspector who starts issuing citations as quickly as he begins gushing endless streams of tears because he’s apparently upset about the city violations or sad that he has to issue them or something. It’s stupid. Anyway, he writes up 30 fines, which threaten to shut down the store within the week.

‘Elemental,’ from Pixar, which you might see this weekend if your kids are bored.

That’s the jist of the movie: Ember’s untempered rage threatens to destroy her father’s livelihood, so she has to persuade Wade to help her void the citations, which in a bit of horse-trading involves patching up a leaky dam with sand bags. Will the dam eventually burst and create a totally avoidable crisis that will threaten Firetown? Who knows. But also, because this film’s plotting is basic and obvious, yes, that will absolutely happen.

Wade is an open-faced, sweet blob of a boy; he’s smitten with Ember and, although he’s a bit anxious, he eventually has no problem expressing his affection for her. “You’re hot!” he inevitably says. “You’re smokin’!” Sure, low-hanging fruit in the pun department, but still cute. Wade comes from a wealthy water family (what does that even mean? Just go with it…) and Ember is a working-class girl with artistic gifts—her glass-blowing is exquisite—but as a child of immigrant parents, she feels obliged to obey her father and put aside her own dreams to continue the family business.

Wade opens Ember’s eyes to the possibilities of life, they fall in love. Wade wants to hug her, which is insane because he’s water and she’s fire. “I could vaporize you!” cries Ember. “You could extinguish me!” She’s absolutely correct. He does it anyway, cautiously, and then with passion. They remain completely intact and unharmed. “We changed each other’s chemistry,” Wade sighs, even though they actually didn’t fundamentally change at all.

So much magical thinking fuels Elemental that nothing really feels at stake because the film’s truly elemental rules only ever apply selectively. It’s a cherry-picked approach to allegorical storytelling that muddies its own water, or blows down its own structure. Choose whatever element-based analogy you think fits best—any which way, the movie will leave you feeling burnt.

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Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer, Garrett is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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