I think it might finally be time to start worrying.
Disney has been catching a lot of complaints with regard to their animated offerings for the past few years, especially with regard to which ones get full theatrical releases and which ones get dropped onto Disney+. Personally, I was never inclined to count Onward or Soul against Pixar, because 2020 — in case you’d forgotten — was the worst year in recorded history since the goddamn Middle Ages.
I could forgive Pixar’s more low-key and intimate offerings (Luca and Turning Red) going directly to the home market on Disney+ while Disney Animation Studio’s more epic films (Raya and the Last Dragon and Encanto) got the big-screen treatment. I could even forgive Lightyear, misguided and slipshod as it was, because I can’t fault Disney or Pixar for full-on committing to so many huge and bold new ideas. But then came Strange World, a Disney Animation Studios film that got a full theatrical release with virtually zero publicity, the movie turned out to be an incomprehensible clusterfuck, and the company CEO got ousted mere days before the film’s release.
And now we’re here with Elemental, a Pixar film that never found its marketing hook, got dumped into theaters only a couple of weeks after Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, then got pushed into theaters day and date with The Flash for extra insult on top of injury. So the film was an immediate box office bomb because of course it fucking was. Even better, the film came packaged with a trailer for DAS’ upcoming Wish, which only seems to exist as a victory lap for Disney’s 100th anniversary. Nothing about the filmmakers, barely anything coherent about the plot or premise, just a bunch of useless “from the studio that brought you” credits. I especially love the bit about how this film wasn’t put into development until 2018, but the trailer still says the story was “a century in the making” in oblique reference to Disney’s centennial. Fuck outta here.
(Side note: The film is also packaged with “Carl’s Date”, an animated short with the late Ed Asner and director Bob Peterson reprising their roles from Up. If you’ve seen the “Dug Days” short films on Disney+ — and I’d strongly recommend them if you haven’t — this is basically more of the same.)
But I digress. The point being that in the wake of all these baffling decisions — to say nothing of the recent Pixar layoffs — it’s worth taking some long and difficult considerations as to what the hell is going on with Disney animation. Though in all fairness, I have to admit that Elemental is such a tough film to gauge, I don’t really blame anyone at Disney or Pixar who had no idea what to do with it.
Elemental comes to us from writer/director Peter Sohn, previously responsible for The Good Dinosaur. So now he has the unfortunate distinction of directing the two biggest box office bombs in the prestigious history of Pixar. More importantly, Sohn was raised in New York City as the son of Korean immigrants. Our protagonist is voiced by Leah Lewis, a Chinese orphan raised by adoptive parents in Florida. And the male lead is voiced by Mamoudou Athie, who grew up in D.C. after his Mauritanian parents came to the U.S.A. for political asylum.
From start to finish, top to bottom, Elemental is very much an immigrant story. This is immediately made obvious as the film opens with married couple Bernie and Cinder Lumen (respectively voiced by Ronnie del Carmen and Shila Ommi) leaving their native home of fire beings to the bustling metropolis of Element City. Trouble is, they arrive only to find that fire doesn’t mix well with the other elemental beings (water boils, vegetation burns, etc.), thus Bernie and Cinder find themselves in what’s basically the ghetto of Element City. Making the best of a bad situation, the family welcomes a daughter (Ember, voiced by Lewis) and establishes a neighborhood grocery for the other Firish immigrants.
Flash forward a few years, and Bernie is visibly getting on in years, unable to maintain the constant pressure of running the store. Thus the pressure is on for Ember to prove to others and herself that she’s willing and able to take over the family business and keep her father’s dream alive. It’s an uphill battle.
Things don’t get any better when the pipes burst and flood the store’s basement with potentially fatal water. This despite the fact that water to the Fire District was supposedly shut off years ago. Enter Wade Ripple (voiced by Athie) a neurotic newly-minted city inspector. After the two cross paths (it’s a long story), Ember and Wade set out to find the water leak, save Bernie’s store, fall in love, and so on and so forth.
To start with, the immigrant angle is easily the strongest reason to see this movie. We’ve got racist microaggressions and we’ve got full-blown racism. We’ve got the roadblocks facing new immigrants, we’ve got the pressures and expectations that come with being the child of immigrants, we’ve got the inner turmoil that comes with being a product of two cultures. We’ve got malicious systemic oppression, we’ve got well-intentioned yet hurtful ignorance, and we’ve got everything in between. Peter Sohn’s direction and writing convey all of this beautifully, and Lewis is acting her ass off to sell us on the protagonist
Alas, Ember isn’t really the problem here. It’s the rest of the film around her.
Let’s start with the male lead and all the wasted opportunities with him. For instance, when we first meet Wade, it’s heavily implied that he’s gotten fired from numerous jobs in the recent past and he desperately needs to keep this job as a city inspector. This is never followed up on. There’s so much talk about what Ember wants, but we never learn about what Wade wants. Ember goes on about how she feels like such a failure, but there’s nothing about Wade’s past failures.
We get some vague implications that Wade has some daddy issues, but there’s no elaboration whatsoever. Not even once during all the umpteen times when Ember is going on at great length about her own father and all her issues with him. That might’ve been a golden chance for the two characters to help each other, just saying.
To give due praise, Athie does well enough to establish the male lead as a clumsy doofus who grows into a more confident person through his relationship with Ember. But then we learn that Wade got himself sucked into a sponge one time as a young boy, and he’s developed a crippling fear of sponges ever since. So the guy who’s always been “once bitten, twice shy” wants to try physical contact with a love interest, even though it could extinguish her and boil him alive. That might’ve been a neat recognition of how far Wade has come in his development as a character, but it doesn’t track without that acknowledgment.
Oh, and by the way, there’s no explanation given about how Ember and Wade can touch each other or kiss without hurting each other. That’s just a thing that happens, flying directly in the face of all the established rules of this world. Not like this world made any sense in the first place — even in the trailer, there’s a lampshade joke about how chain-link fences are completely useless in this setting, yet such fences are still used for reasons even the characters can’t explain.
I’m led to presume that Pixar was going for a Cars kind of situation, in which the world itself makes absolutely no sense except to convey the themes of the film. (In the case of Cars, that means moving too fast, slowing down to savor life, and so on.) The difference there is that anthropomorphic cars have been a market-tested concept since freaking Herbie the Love Bug. Strange as it sounds, it’s an easier concept to understand (and merchandise) as opposed to the concept of fire, water, wind, and plants as sentient beings living and working together in a humanoid metropolis.
While we’re on the topic of Pixar comparisons, let’s talk about Turning Red. There was another wonderful story about a young girl growing up and coming into her own as the daughter of immigrant parents. And to its credit, Elemental went significantly deeper and wider with regard to life and hard times as an immigrant. Trouble is, Turning Red had a much cleaner plot, more compelling characters, the cross-generational conflict was far more engaging, and again, the world-building was leagues better.
Elemental has many significant problems with regards to characters and plot. The filmmakers are so focused on the Ember/Wade romance that the existential threat bringing them together feels like an afterthought at best. It’s bizarre how the filmmakers will suddenly and repeatedly bring up the water leak only to quash the issue just as quickly, like it was compulsory for the sake of spiking the tension and spectacle. Really, with the exception of Ember’s personal and intimate issues, every external conflict and crisis is resolved with unnerving ease. We even get a climactic fake-out with a resolution that borders on deus ex machina.
It certainly doesn’t help that the supporting characters are all stock. Bernie is your typical overbearing and disapproving father whose development arc could be traced with a ruler, Cinder is only there to make sure her daughter gets married to a nice fire being, Wade is unequal to his romantic co-lead, and every supporting character is two-dimensional at best. Hell, we get a young earth elemental (Clod, voiced by Mason Wertheimer) with an inexplicable crush on Ember, and fuck if I know what he was doing in this movie at all!
Granted, Ember is also a stock character going through the motions of living as an immigrant child and trying to figure out who she is, it’s a story we’ve seen umpteen times before and there’s really nothing new about her on paper. The difference is that Lewis has the space and the talent to elevate her character into somebody worth following and rooting for. Alas, this means that Ember (and by extension, Lewis) is stuck trying to carry the entire film on her back. One strong character isn’t enough for a viable romance plot, ditto for a cross-generational conflict.
Elemental has a lot of great points going for it. This is an immigrant story bursting with heart, and the various relevant themes are delivered in painstaking depth without mercy. Peter Sohn and Leah Lewis are trying so hard to carry this movie, but it simply isn’t enough. The characters aren’t detailed or compelling enough, the personal conflicts and relationships are overwhelmingly one-sided in Ember’s favor, and the plot is a half-baked shambles. I need hardly add that a few cute puns and groaner visual gags are nowhere near enough to redeem the outlandish setting or the neglectful world-building.
At this point, I’m convinced that Peter Sohn could do so much more good as a producer than a director. I’m pretty sure he’s still part of the Pixar Senior Creative Team (though we’ll see how that shakes out in a couple weeks), where he could do so much good to nurture other animators and filmmakers and storytellers from diverse backgrounds. Storytellers who could manage better than The Good Dinosaur and Elemental.
This one should’ve gone to Disney+. It’s worth checking out for the immigration themes, but that doesn’t make it worth a big-screen watch.