REVIEW: Elemental (2023, dir. Peter Sohn)

Certificate: PG

Running Time: 110 mins

UK Distributor: Disney

WHO’S IN ELEMENTAL?

Leah Lewis, Mamoudou Athie, Ronnie del Carmen, Shila Ommi, Mason Wertheimer, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Catherine O’Hara, Ronobir Lahiri, Wilma Bonet, Joe Pera, Matt Yang King, Onanovie Ekakitie, Krysta Gonzales, Ava Kai Hauser, Jonathan Adams, Clara Lin Ding, Reagan To

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Peter Sohn (director), John Hoberg, Kat Likkel and Brenda Hsueh (writers), Denise Ream (producer), Thomas Newman (composer), David Juan Bianchi and Jean-Claude Kalache (cinematographers), Stephen Schaffer (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

In a world of anthropomorphic elements, a fiery young woman (Lewis) and a go-with-the-flow guy (Athie) cross paths…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON ELEMENTAL?

Water, earth, fire, air… no, it’s not the opening of Avatar: The Last Airbender, but rather the latest “what if [BLANK] were alive?” concept from Pixar, which after adding personalities to the likes of toys, cars, emotions and souls now tries to do the same to the four classical elements in the handily-titled Elemental.

Surprisingly, though, this particular concept has received a large amount of indifference from a number of critics and audiences (in the US, the film is officially Pixar’s lowest-ever opener with $29.5 million in its first weekend), and this could be blamed on a number of things from ineffective marketing to a miscalculated Cannes launch where it received mixed reviews as the festival’s closing film. However, it could simply be a case of been-there-done-that, as Pixar’s whole gimmick of breathing life into inanimate objects and abstract concepts no longer has the draw that it once did, and perhaps trying that with water, fire etc might have been a step too far for some (then again, the concept of Cars was considered too out-there by many as well, but it still did pretty well at the box office).

While it’s true that Pixar might not be quite as lucrative or even as fresh as it once was, there is still a fair amount to really like about Elemental. It’s not an immediate classic for the studio, for reasons that I’ll get into momentarily, but it does showcase its extraordinary ability to push the envelope with dazzling and colourful animation, as well as give some interesting depth to its characters who feel more real than the CG graphics will ever allow them to be.

Taking place in Element City, which is where, as you may already guess, citizens made up entirely of water, earth, fire and air live and work together, we are first introduced to fire couple Bernie (Ronnie del Carmen) and Cinder (Shila Ommi) as they emigrate from their home in Fireland to the city. After giving birth to their daughter Ember (Leah Lewis), they open up and run a successful store in the fire district, but when Ember’s fiery temper accidentally brings about a water leakage, sensitive water inspector Wade (Mamoudou Athie) reluctantly informs her that, unless the leak is fixed, the store will be permanently closed. In her pursuit of saving her family’s store, Ember becomes close with Wade, and the two of them end up falling in love despite their differing elemental DNA, and Bernie’s deep-rooted hatred for water people.

The easiest comparison that anyone could make for this film is with another Disney animated feature, Zootropolis (or Zootopia, for all you non-UK readers): both films are set in vast cities occupied by anthropomorphised residents made up of decisively non-human entities, and they each deal with near-identical themes of racism and intolerance. Between the two, though, I personally prefer Zootropolis, as it has a much more straightforward plot and it utilised its themes a bit better, whereas Elemental seems less certain of which direction its wants to head in, and much of that comes from a surprisingly over-complicated plot. Pixar often prides itself on having sophisticated narratives that both adults and children can follow along with easily, but here a large portion of the main strand revolves around city maintenance and store ownership, hardly the most exciting of topics for children or even many adults, and therefore what should be the central focus – that being the blossoming romance between our two lead characters – sometimes gets lost in the mix. It’s a flaw that was also apparent in director Peter Sohn’s previous Pixar feature The Good Dinosaur, which similarly lost focus every now and then but in that case you could chalk it up to the troubled production period that it experienced, while with Elemental it perhaps boils down to overcomplicating something that should have been simple all along.

However, once you overcome its tangly plot, it is a dazzling visual experience. The animation is top-notch, even by Pixar’s standards, with a lot of care and precision clearly having gone into bringing life to characters made up entirely of fire, water, air and earth. Some of the character designs, particularly those made of fire, are so meticulously crafted that you genuinely do wonder exactly how these animators were able to add all these complex little touches without crashing their servers, and there is a touch of Studio Ghibli influence – specifically one fiery character from Howl’s Moving Castle – in the ways in which their faces are animated as well. Like a lot of Pixar movies, it is simply stunning to look at, and this one even comes with the extra benefit of a lively Thomas Newman musical score, the composer’s fourth collaboration with the studio after Finding Nemo, WALL-E and Finding Dory, which makes the overall atmosphere all the more soothing.

The film is largely being sold as a Nora Ephron-esque romantic-comedy, and while that’s not exactly what the film as a whole actually is, it’s understandable why that would be a huge part of the marketing, because the central romance is honestly very endearing. Ember and Wade, winningly voiced by Leah Lewis and Mamoudou Athie respectively, are well-defined characters who are likeable and strong-hearted in their own unique ways, and you do eventually see the spark that ignites between them which makes their relationship an intriguing one, even as it follows many of the regular conventions you’d expect a film like this to. The film also plays around a lot with their contrasting elements, often for comedic purposes but also for some genuinely heartfelt moments that really does show how Pixar, even in the midst of its current dry spot, can still conjure up so many emotions through pure visuals and without the need for much dialogue.

Like I said, there is plenty to like and respect about Elemental, and it is a little better than some of Pixar’s other recent offerings (this one absolutely wipes the floor with last year’s Lightyear), but the only thing keeping it down is a plot that makes this otherwise straightforward idea more complicated than it needs to be. Other than that, it’s an endearing enough film that’ll leave you feeling mostly warm inside.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Elemental is a likeable Pixar adventure that contains some dazzling animation, even by Pixar’s standards, and an endearing central romance, but an overly complicated plot ends up standing in its way from becoming a legitimate all-timer for the studio.

Elemental is showing in cinemas from Friday 7th July 2023

Click here to find showtimes near you!

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