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Elemental isn’t Pixar’s best, but it taps into the studio’s superpower

What it misses on story it makes up for in visual splendor.

An image with creatures representing the four elements, riding a subway-style train.
Fire and water don’t mix. Or do they?
Disney / Pixar
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Not to sound like an old person, but I do miss the Pixar of my youth — the can’t-miss studio that turned out artful, funny movies for kids and adults and had cultural staying power. (Toy Story was released in 1995, shortly after my 12th birthday, but I wasn’t too grown up to love it when my grandma took me to see it.) A new Pixar movie used to be enough of an event in my life that my husband and I, full-grown adults, felt perfectly comfortable showing up to see Ratatouille unaccompanied by children. Wall-E narrowly missed my Sight & Sound ballot last year.

In 2006, Disney acquired Pixar, and alongside other unfortunate factors, the “can’t-miss” reputation has slowly declined, with relative duds like The Good Dinosaur, the less-than-loved Cars series (at least among the parents of their target audience), and Lightyear (want to feel old? Lightyear came out less than a year ago) tarnishing the shine. Honestly, that’s fine — everyone gets some swings and misses — but Disney for some reason decided to push Pixar’s best recent offering, Turning Red, straight to Disney+ with no theatrical option, probably in a now-cooling enthusiasm about streaming. (Soul and Luca also went straight to streaming, but at the height of the pandemic, with other concerns at heart.)

Anyhow, this all brings us to Elemental. For a giant nerd (me), a movie starring the ancient four elements — earth, air, fire, and water — sounded weird and gutsy and great, so hopes ran high. You may be expecting (and I half-expected to be writing) some soliloquy on Plato and Hippocrates and whatever here, but Elemental doesn’t give us that. To the ancients, the elements were a way to explain all of existence by way of four fundamentals, simple substances that would make the complexity of the natural world more legible. For director Peter Sohn, the four elements are really just a way to construct a little imaginative universe in which to play, and I mean, I can’t fault him. No need to drag the Presocratics in to please me.

A fire woman and a water man look pleadingly.
Ember and Wade plead with a coworker.
Disney / Pixar

I am a little disappointed, though, by the feeling that Elemental is underdeveloped, both by Pixar story standards and the standards of much less exacting movies. In part, it’s the story of an immigrant family — a fire family, to be specific, the Lumens, who move to the big city in search of a better life for their fire child Ember (Leah Lewis). In this city, water and earth and air live in the shiny fancy central metropolis, while fire people are relegated to an outer borough, away from where they might cause harm. Out there, the Lumens open a shop where they sell snacks and other fire-specific goods. Ember is raised working in the shop, and her parents tell her it will be hers one day.

As she approaches the crest of young adulthood, she meets Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie), a water person who accidentally ends up in the shop through some mishaps, and they fall in love. From there it’s sort of a Romeo and Juliet thing, but there’s also an adventure about saving the shop from getting shut down, and also finding a leak in the town, and also learning to risk love by combining elements and — well, honestly, it gets a little muddled, and I started to lose track of what was going on.

Pixar’s story strength has always been in helping audiences process deeply poignant and melancholy feelings about the world — sadness, loss, the fear of abandonment, even the nature of the soul. These are weighty matters that many contemporary purveyors of entertainment for children skip over (it feels like most other kids’ films are either about “friendship” or “being yourself”). With a story based on the four elements, you could imagine, for instance, an exploration of trying to take the scariest phenomena of the world and injecting them with wonder and awe. In its muddledness, Elemental feints in a few directions — ambivalence about your parents’ goals for you, the experience of second-generation immigrants, prejudice against people who don’t look like you — but nothing quite lands securely because it isn’t thoroughly developed.

Two characters, fire and water, look at one another with a little fear and a little longing.
The course of true elemental love never did run smooth.
Disney / Pixar

Yet Elemental isn’t a full failure. It’s an original story, for one, and coming from Disney, that’s no small thing. The best thing about Elemental — and, since movies are a primarily visual medium, it’s a very good thing indeed — is that it looks incredible. The team at Pixar somehow manages to render a realistic-looking flame that’s also clearly a cartoon, somehow a being with emotions ranging from rage to love to fear, while also in the same frame depicting rushing water so realistic-looking that I started to wonder if they’d actually shot real water instead.

The human artists at Pixar are a peak example of what it means for art and technology to combine, and they’ve been generating genuine amazement from their audiences for three decades. What they’re doing, though, isn’t mere spectacle; it’s creating a space for the imagination to play in, finely rendered and detailed. I’ll never forget attending the “Pixar: 20 Years of Animation” show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 2006 and being transfixed by the artistry on display. Pixar rarely gets gimmicky; instead, they strive to create stories and characters and experiences (emotions, elements, souls, memories) that are best crafted through careful animation.

Which is why I left Elemental with a smile on my face. A film without images (or with bad images you can avoid while staring at your phone) might as well be a long podcast. There’s clearly a tug-of-war going on inside Pixar; I don’t know how it will end. But the expectations they’ve set for several generations of audience members about what a great movie can look like — even a movie, yes, for kids — is priceless, and we’ve been lucky to have them.

Elemental opens in theaters on June 16.

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