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  • Writer's pictureAlexa Bouhelier-Ruelle

Movie Review: Pixar’s “Elemental”

Pixar’s latest feature takes the conventional antagonist’s duo of fire and water from foils to friends to frustrated soul mates in a vibrant showcase of studio animation.

From Pixar’s “Elemental” © Festival de Cannes

Very few animated films have been given the opportunity to premiere in Cannes, but Pixar is the exception--premiering their masterpieces multiple times, including this year's production, "Elemental". Everyone has their favourite Pixar movie — mine is “Toy Story”, with “Inside Out” and “Ratatouille” very close seconds — and no matter which title you prefer in the game-changing animation studio’s catalogue, almost every one of them feels unique. But in the last few years, Pixar, which Disney purchased for more than $7 billion back in 2006, has failed to deliver the goods it used to. “Soul” was ambitious but played too much like a jazzy riff on “Inside Out”. “Luca” was fun in the Italian sun but also too slight. “Lightyear” was an unnecessary but entertaining spinoff of a great franchise that should have ended as a trilogy.

This brings us to “Elemental”. The studio’s 27th feature, has, well, all the elements that make up a great Pixar movie: a high-concept pitch that could only be rendered via dazzling state-of-the-art computer animation; a serious overarching theme about ethnic strife and racial tolerance; humour for both kids and adults, although this one is more geared toward the 10-and-under set; a plot that hits all the right beats at exactly the right time. As a feat of pure visual craftsmanship, “Elemental” is anything but simple, often delighting the eyes with inventive character designs and trailblazing animation techniques. For that alone, the Pixar-produced, Peter Sohn-directed feature makes a fitting cap for this year’s Cannes Film Festival, closing the prestigious event with an incident-rich and formally vibrant showcase for studio animation might. Though a return to form for Pixar itself – a rekindling of that fire that set hearts ablaze by wedding prodigious technique to (sorry for the pun) elementally simple metaphor – the film falls somewhat short of previous highs. Through pure storytelling magic, the film also unfortunately lives up to its title.

In “Elemental”, Pixar’s usual ambitious leap into the unknown is more of a safe dip into calm waters — water being one of the four elements driving the story, although only two count here — and much about it seems familiar. This doesn’t mean it won’t be at least a modest summer hit when Disney releases it in mid-June. But the wow factor has been lost at this point, and what we’re left with feels like just another Pixar movie. Building on multiple elements from last year’s “Turning Red,” this latest Pixar joint mines family expectations for narrative tension, doing so with a refreshing absence of conventional antagonists. This time, “Elemental” foregrounds the first-generation immigrant experience right from the start, beginning with a short prologue that follows the freshly-arrived Lumen family off the boat and into their new lives in the suburbs of Element City.

Once we catch up with the now-adult Ember (voiced by Leah Lewis), the only child has become a fixture of her Firetown community and a hair-trigger presence at her family’s all-purpose deli. The corner store is a fun place to hang — the kind of neighbourhood hub where everyone gathers over pools of java, where the native tongue of Firish is spoken more than English, and where the Old Country bears certain hallmarks of East Asia, altogether reflecting the many immigrant communities the Fire elements are meant to represent. But Ember would rather be anywhere else. As Paula Abdul famously predicted, opposites attract, and so Ember and Wade start to grow fond of each other, even if they can’t make any physical contact because, well, you get it. The Pixar story algorithm takes over at that point, with the two facing all sorts of obstacles as they fall in love despite their inherent differences, pushing Ember to hide the relationship from a proud father who prefers her to stay back in Fire Town.

Story aside, there is no doubt that the animators have done a fantastic job when it comes to the animation of “Elemental”. The character design is fittingly adorable and unique. Watching the elements interact and use their elemental abilities to shape the land, specifically Ember's use of sand to create glass sculptures, is mesmerizing. Scenes, where we see Ember and Wade exploring a flooded tunnel or watch as Ember's flame changes colour when she touches mineral rocks, are pieces of art, especially when coupled with Newman's score. In many ways, it's a pity that the story is not as strong as the animation. The film's inability to colour outside the lines makes an undeniably endearing story feel underwhelming, neither unique nor original.

Water has always been a tricky substance for animators, and what Sohn and his team do with it, especially once Ember starts visiting downtown Elemental City with Wade, can be impressive to behold. The wide-ranging colour palette includes a gazillion shades of blue, turquoise and green that this partly colourblind critic felt almost assaulted by, and the whole setting looks like Shanghai’s Pudong district dipped into a giant aquarium. Another innovation involves characters whose faces and bodies are filled with constant internal motion, whether swarming with flames or churning with fluids. That, and a few charmingly funny sequences — especially a visit that Ember and Wade pay to the latter’s overbearing bougie mom (Catherine O’Hara) — cannot, however, compensate for the film’s major flaw, which is that it feels entirely predictable. Maybe we’ve all seen too many Pixar movies by now, and so if this one was the studio’s first-ever release instead of its umpteenth one, it would seem more surprising, more daring.

Overall, I almost wish “Elemental” could’ve been a Pixar short, instead of a feature film. Less pressure, that way. The studio has always been a bit shy with romantic subplots, save for “WALL-E” and those opening minutes of “Up” that live in our heads rent-free. It’s a movie bursting with personality and enthusiasm, but it’s low on laughs and emotional gut punches. If this is Pixar going back to basics, that’s well and good. It’s still a Pixar movie. It’s still a cut above a lot of the other original features trying to build an audience out of the new IP. But let’s be honest, Pixar itself is already an IP.

It’s a brand. “Good enough” isn’t exactly that brand, and the diminishing returns when it comes to audience retention are real.

The Trailer





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