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Review: Elemental (2023)

Elemental (2023)

Directed by: Peter Sohn

Premise: Set in a fantasy world inhabited by people who are one of the basic elements: fire, water, land, and air. A family of fire people move to town and establish a business. Their daughter meets a man made of water, leading to a cross-cultural conflict.

What Works: Pixar has consistently produced high quality animated features. Even when the stories weren’t quite up to the heights of the studio’s finest work, Pixar has reliably created impressive imagery and that continues to be the case in Elemental. The film constructs a detailed and highly imaginative world that is inhabited by people of different elements. The physical environment has been created with detail and care and cultures of these different groups have been given equivalent consideration. Elemental focuses on Ember (voice of Leah Lewis), a young woman whose body is made of fire. She meets and gradually falls for Wade (voice of Mamoudou Athie), a person of water. The filmmakers create entire cultures for the fire and water people and visualize how society is designed with one of these groups in mind at the inconvenience of the other. It’s smart worldbuilding that supports the story’s themes.

What Doesn’t: Pixar is frequently at its best when it gets weird. Films such as Inside Out and Soul were both conceptually and narratively ambitious and found ways of visualizing complex and profound aspects of the human experience in ways that were accessible to family audiences. Elemental has the appearance of those ambitious features but it is a disappointingly rote viewing experience. The story is a racial parable with the various elements representing different racial and ethnic groups. The metaphor is obvious and the filmmakers don’t do anything that interesting with it. The plot is cliché. We’ve seen this story before and there is no reason to tell it this way. Presenting real life social issues through a metaphor makes sense if society is resistant to that idea; it makes the concept more palatable. Interracial relationships and generational conflicts are nothing new and Elemental doesn’t reveal anything about those issues. In fact, the film lags behind public sentiment and it comes across as a strawman argument. Elemental is not a compelling romance. The characters fall in love only because the canned plot requires them to and Ember and Wade lack a meaningful connection. The conflicts are never really confronted or resolved but just given up on which makes for unsatisfying drama.

Bottom Line: Elemental is a disappointing feature from Pixar. The movie’s technical qualities are beyond rebuke but this creative story world is wasted on a cliché and uninteresting story.

Episode: #954 (June 25, 2023)