Elemental: Pixar, The Good Dinosaur, and the Weight of Expectations

We all did wrong by The Good Dinosaur (2015). It’s thought to be Pixar’s worst movie. The poor reception is due to many factors: genre confusion; half-a-decade of creative entanglements; a change in director; poor financial performance; and the fact it was released only five months after one of Pixar’s best movies, Inside Out. Or, maybe it’s the hard-to-parse theme of Fear and the anachronistic, subversive motifs that crash against each other. It’s not easy to give the logline: what if, 65 million years ago, the asteroids didn’t hit Earth and the dinosaurs kept developing while humans did not? What if it’s a traditional Disney movie, about parental loss and the hero’s journey, but actually, it’s a Western about how terrifying the environment is, where the themes stack and subvert one another, in a way that simply does not happen in this kind of movie? It’s not a great movie but it’s a good movie that’s memetically been crowned the worst.

Elemental. Dir. Peter Sohn.

When you go to review a Pixar movie it feels like there are two options. It must either be the pinnacle of a current run of animation or much to online ne’er-do-wells chagrin, is a failure for a studio that often overshadows the wider diversity of the animated medium they work in. The studio rarely falls flat on its face and its major successes are fewer and further between for a litany of reasons that have as much to do with its Disney ownership (see, the shifting realities of the last couple of years about whether any of their movies would even play theatrically, and now, the reality that they all will), but the truth about Pixar’s contemporary output is that it’s mostly fine, not very challenging, and still basically in-line with the emotional ethos of the Pixar brand.

Elemental is Peter Sohn’s second feature, eight years after the unfairly panned The Good Dinosaur. There is a feeling that this film will also find a polarized audience. You can read the film as the series of storyboards that it was designed around and you could say that the design is transparent, and the emotions are treacly and painted with such a broad brush for a movie that wants to be more specific. There is, however, a beating heart here, and the framework is basically good.

In Element City, fire, water, earth, and air characters live together in mostly sequestered harmony. The film, funnily enough, only is interested in the fire and water elements and the other two are just tertiary would-be aspects of world-building. The primary characters are Ember and Wade, who fall in love, despite the elemental dissonance in their relationship. Sohn’s movie plays inside the aesthetic of Inside Out but tries to carve out its own niche as a soft-hearted rom-com.

Elemental. Dir. Peter Sohn.

What happens is that Ember’s father moved to this land as an immigrant and set up a shop called the Fireplace, a warm storefront that sells specialized items that come from the culture of the fire people. In his old age, Ember’s father is hacking up coal and is due to retire and hand the shop over to her. Her steamy disposition, always blowing a gasket over simple conflicts with customers, makes her a difficult fit. Not helping matters, water is overflowing from the city and keeps flooding the store, putting out the flame of the family’s commerce. So enters Wade, a watery young man who inspects the shop for the city, and despite the differences in their bodily properties, falls hard for Ember, and so begins a whirlwind romance of trying to convince a family of red-hot tempers to accept an outsider into their fold and for Wade to help convince the city not to close up the family’s shop.

Here comes the standard line for a Pixar review, explaining the metaphorical currency as though written from a script: Elemental is a clever allegory for multicultural romances, wherein two families, through their very differences, learn how to come together and forge a new element of romance. There are a handful of fairly earned laughs and a buoyant spirit to the movie, that even when it feels stalled out and like it’s not progressing, keeps the audience partly engaged. It feels as though there ought to be more worldbuilding. Besides being burnt by the fiery inhabitants, the earthen citizens are hardly given any character at all. Likewise, the airborne characters are characterized as prominent members of society, but also given nothing particularly meaty to do. The interplay between water and fire, on the other hand, leads to some terrific moments of animation, just what you expect a Pixar movie to always be, but only for some of the runtime.

The meaning of the film, like The Good Dinosaur before it, seems to be driving toward something new and essential, and just like that movie, the rest is understated to the point that it’s a harder sell. If you’ve taken in any of the marketing for Elemental, you probably have no idea what kind of movie it is. This isn’t by design. Even watching the movie, especially in the first fourth of the runtime, it’s practically unclear what kind of Pixar movie is about to unfold. Eventually, the allegories pay off and the story opens up to greater possibilities for the animation to wash over the audience, but it’s a slow burn getting there. Just like The Good Dinosaur, you can expect an audience to reject the premise of an intermediate Pixar movie, when the case is that they may no longer be the arbiters of all animation, and the company’s current standard is simply to keep making the kinds of movies they have always made at any cost.


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