It’s not hard to understand what Pixar’s Elemental is doing. As directed by Peter Sohn, the film swirls together a generational immigrant tale with an interracial love story—both of which are mighty salable ideas these days. The “clever” twist here: all of the film’s characters are anthropomorphized elements, as in earth, fire, wind, and water. I’ll assume Sohn’s familiarity with Captain Planet and fill in the rest of the thinking here: heart!
As co-written with John Hoberg, Kat Likkel, and Brenda Hsueh, Elemental imagines a city where the four elements live in relative harmony. Ember (Leah Lewis) is one such denizen, working to eventually inherit her family’s shop in Fire Town. In this conception, Ember and her family tend to stick with their own, with the film making allusions to their traditional homeland, the perceived danger they pose to other elements, and the constant threat of water. Nevertheless, enter Wade (Mamoudou Athie), a goofy drip and city inspector, to both ruin the day and capture Ember’s heart. The rest of the film plays out accordingly from there, with the requisite chase sequences, diversions, and moments of self-discovery all leading to the expected conclusion. If I sound bored it’s because I’m just not sure who needs to hear this story. The film is too clunky for children and its ideas are straight out of Sociology 101. Sure, Pixar still has an ear for great voice acting and can deliver their usual visual polish (the water looks real, for example), but their established brand works against them here.
Which is to say, with respect, this iteration of Pixar—staffed by well-meaning artists doing their best to bring these ideas to life—does not have the range. While Elemental avoids the expository problems of, say, Soul, it has the same sheepish attitude, as if the filmmakers know their thematic analogy is tortured but they’re going to plead the case anyway: please just give us a chance. This is weird energy for a kid’s movie—weirder still for an ostensible romantic one.