"I take orders from the Octoboss."


There was a period of about 25 years, it now occurs to me, when I had seen every Pixar movie in the theater. It wasn’t some corporate brand loyalty bullshit, it was because for most of that time their track record was immaculate. They were the originators of computer animated features, and of their brand of storytelling, and no one could match them, though many tried. For a while I watched most of their competitors too, then I didn’t, but I still kept up with Pixar. 21 of them in a row. To me only CARS 2 was genuinely bad. Otherwise the worst ones were just forgettable. And that wasn’t many of them.

It was the pandemic that broke my streak. I can’t remember if theaters were even open here when ONWARD came out, but I wasn’t going until the vaccine, so I saw it VOD or something. I enjoyed the clever stuff they did with the premise of a sword and sorcery fantasy world evolved into modern civilization, but the emotional part rang false to me. Since it was about a son mourning his father I really thought it would wreck me, but I was annoyed how both the main character and the movie completely ignored that his mother suffered the same or greater loss. Made me kinda hate the kid.

I loved the next one, SOUL, and enjoyed LUCA and TURNING RED. But all three were released straight to Disney+. And then they returned to the big screen with LIGHTYEAR… which I will definitely watch some day, hoping it’s more than the awkwardly retrofitted brand extension it appears to be. But the spell is broken now. I don’t go automatically anymore, and I had reasons to be suspicious of their summer of 2023 release, so I didn’t see it until now.

The short version is that ELEMENTAL is cute and heartfelt enough to be entertaining, even though it’s the most up its ass Pixar has ever been (at least until I see LIGHTYEAR). It’s the closest they’ve gotten to the joke from my OSMOSIS JONES review about a movie called LAUNDRY MATT – What if socks had lives? I believe WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT invented this template with What if cartoons had lives?, and then Pixar did What if toys had lives?, What if monsters had lives?, What if cars had lives? and What if cars had lives? 2 and 3. Eventually they pushed it into a new level of abstraction with What if emotions had lives?, which I thought was pretty good, and many consider it great. But now they’ve moved on to What if… elements had lives, I guess? I don’t know.

The answer they give to that question is well, there would be a city called Element City where different cultures – people made of water, sentient clouds, walking trees – all try to live together. And there would be lots of racial tension, particularly toward the fire people. It’s a metaphor for racism that to me seems itself kinda racist – some of these races naturally cause each other physical harm! I guess they get around it by showing some water splashing fire people and fire burning tree people and having it just be a clumsy annoyance, not a fatal racial incident. But it’s unclear exactly how it works. Anyway I’m gonna let it go because I don’t want people to make the same complaint about my upcoming animated feature ROCK PAPER SCISSORS: THE MOVIE. From the makers of LAUNDRY MATT. Copyright Vern, 2024.

To my mind, this is a pretty stupid idea for a movie. But once I was able to let go of “WHY?!” and some of the details of how the world works, I was able to simply be annoyed by the water-person male lead Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie, UNDERWATER, JURASSIC WORLD PRESENTS DOMINION) being such a frantic dweeb. And once I got used to him I was finally able to enjoy the basic story and the usual Pixar flair for creating detailed worlds. The city is very cool looking with all its odd architectural styles, water bridges, etc., and of course they put lots of thought into how everything would work (fire people wear chain mail clothes, she has to put a hood up at the movies). One of the reasons I didn’t rush to see this is that the character designs were really unappealing to me (he does look like a drippy Osmosis Jones). Thankfully they work much better in context.

What worked best for me is the novelty of following a straight up rom-com formula. That’s a new gimmick for Pixar, and maybe for animation. The heroine, Ember Lumen (Leah Lewis, NANKING) is the daughter of immigrants from the Fire Kingdom. Her parents moved to town without knowing much English and when fire people suffered open discrimination, but they opened a store called The Fire Place selling candies and things from their culture. Over time a whole Firish (get it?) neighborhood grew around them, with brick buildings shaped like stoves, and no plumbing.

Ember grew up helping run the store, but her temper makes it hard for her to be nice to the (honestly really obnoxious) customers, so her dad, Bernie (Ronnie del Carmen, story supervisor, SPIRIT: STALLION OF THE CIMARRON), is hesitant about retiring and letting her take over. The meet cute you get for a fire and water rom-com is that one day she runs into the back room to calm down, her head explodes into a fireball, cracking some old pipes that suck in not only water but Wade, who is on duty as a city inspector, and writes up a bunch of citations for this shop her dad built without permits.

It does break the rom-com formula because he should be crusty and later have a change of heart – instead he’s comically empathetic, prone to projectile tears, but thinks he has to do his job until she literally chases him across town and talks to him a little more. He’s already submitted the citations, but agrees to bring her to a big sporting event where his cloud boss Gale Cumulus (Wendi McLendon-Covey, MAGIC MIKE [scenes deleted]) will be, so Ember can plead her case. I found it torturous the way it stacks up an idiotic choice (stalking a stranger and interrupting her favorite activity to ask her for an unearned favor having to do with her job) with an actually unethical one (a government official using connections to get someone off the hook, not to mention invading Gale’s privacy). But admittedly the flesh and blood people in the live action rom-coms always do some kind of totally asinine thing that makes no sense. So it fits.

There’s a bit of a Romeo and Juliet aspect – Ember’s dad is very traditional (racist) so she hides that she starts dating a water person, correctly guessing how he’ll react. But the emphasis of the “fire and water falling in love” premise is more of an MC Skat Cat opposites attract type deal. She goes to dinner at Wade’s parents’ house and meets the family, who are very different not just culturally, but class-wise. They say some clueless things, but are very open and welcoming to her. They’re also a family of artists and when she uses her natural talent to resculpt a broken glass pitcher they praise and encourage her. I thought it was funny to hear Catherine O’Hara’s voice as the mom, Brook, because she’s kinda like a much more positive version of Delia Deetz, the art-crazy mom of BEETLEJUICE. But also there’s a pretty complex dynamic here – Wade and his family are a little oblivious to the privilege/luxury of being able to dedicate your life to art. They don’t know the financial and cultural pressures for her to take responsibility for her dad’s business, and it frustrates her. But also some part of her must feel good to be shown so much support and encouragement for her creativity.

Ultimately she’ll use her talents to be creative in two senses – in how she solves a big problem (a major infrastructure danger that threatens to flood Firetown) and in expressing herself artistically. I kinda thought the flooding was gonna be a Judge Doom style genocidal plot, but it’s much better that there’s no villain (even if a romantic rival would fit the genre).

ELEMENTAL was conceived and directed by Peter Sohn (THE GOOD DINOSAUR), inspired by growing up with Korean immigrant parents who ran a New York City grocery store in the ‘70s. It has a sweet ending where Ember figures out how to follow her own life path while showing respect to her cultural traditions. So it won me over. It was worth watching.

I just hope the next one isn’t What if punctuation had lives? or What if the bank is a country and the coins start to question capitalism? or I don’t know… active cultures in yogurt are cultures? Is that something? How bout none of this in a world where abstraction shit, just come up with something where there’s a girl or a guy and they have to do a thing or whatever. Just my two cents.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, February 7th, 2024 at 12:23 pm and is filed under Reviews, Cartoons and Shit. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

11 Responses to “Elemental”

  1. I have been seeing the seams in Pixar’s formula for a very long time now (I believe I described it as “What if INSERT FANTASTICAL CONCEPT HERE was just a bunch of boring suburban sadsacks like you losers who buy our merchandise?”) but this is the first time it felt like they totally gave up. All the other times, maybe they were just telling the only story they knew how to tell, but they were trying to tell it with as much soul and gusto as they could muster. This time it looked like they just broke out the Pixar Mad Libs and filled in the blanks. I wonder if it started out with all the actual elements and they were gonna call it PERIODIC but then they said “Fuck it, too complicated, nobody cares about science in the Heartland anyway” and made it this earth, wind and fire crap. Honestly, I’ve never been the world’s biggest Pixar fan but even I thought they were better than this. I would expect this from Dreamworks or the Minions people.

    I definitely thought of LAUNDRY: THE MOVIE from the ROBOTS review when I saw the trailer.

  2. As someone who teaches & writes a ton about immigration & ethnicity in America, I really enjoyed those themes here, which I thought were handled about as well as I’ve ever seen in a film of any type. But YMMV on that, of course.

    On your final note though, Vern, I have to say I think that’s precisely what animation should always strive to do–tell stories that couldn’t just be replicated with live-action. Otherwise, why make it animated? Should be something there, in the worldbuilding for example, that only animation can capture. I feel like that’s always been a big part of Pixar’s wheelhouse, and whether the films work or not (and to me this one did), I hope it always will be.


  3. I’m not saying don’t make it about monsters or talking bunnies, I’m just saying we’re running out of inanimate objects and abstract concepts to turn into societies without it being laughable. After I cross anthropomorphic scissors off of the list there’s nothing good left.

  4. Haven’t seen that one, but LIGHTYEAR is an entertaining little mindless popcorn SciFi movie with a good, although completely unoriginal, time travel gimmick. It’s just that every time they tried to find new ways to sell the “This is the REAL Buzz Lightyear” concept to the audience, they made it less and less appealing.

  5. I’m way behind on Pixar releases, but I would watch the punctuation movie. I assume it will star a semicolon and an interrobang, and the theme is about being mixed case– I mean, mixed race.

  6. Yeah, the trailers for this one looked like a parody of Pixar, although apparently the film had legs at the box office. It’s kind of a bummer because as much as people say that Pixar has lost their touch, I actually thought Soul, Luna, and Turning Red were up there with some of their best. And those three in particular seemed interested in moving away or at least tweaking the common Pixar formula. It looked like they were stretching what they wanted to do, but then Lightyear and Elemental hit.

  7. The marketing did this movie dirty. When I finally got around to seeing it on D+ I was pretty impressed. I’m glad it exists. Sloppier than usual for Pixar but I thought the immigrant community stuff was extremely well handled and I think the first time Pixar or Disney has tackled that? It’s the whole reason the movie worked. Soul and Luca don’t work for me as well, even though they’re definitely structurally stronger movies.

  8. ” What if cars had lives? and What if cars had lives? 2″
    Bless you, Vern.

    I liked this one overall – and yeah, the trailer was awful. Then again, I thought the trailer for What if Emotions had Lives? was laughably bad and it ended up being one of my favorite pixars, so what are you going to do. Disney marketing sucks/isn’t for me.

    The immigration stuff was nicely handled and had at least some nuance, though its pastiche nature rubbed me the wrong way; I like that one of the main themes ends up being second-generation immigrant guilt.
    But what really bothered me was the shoddiness of its rules. I actually don’t mind Cars in that sense (I hate it, but because it’s a shitty formulaic melodrama) – I mean, cars drive themselves in this world, that’s the buy-in, I’m not going to start poking hole in its metaphysics and wonder where people went and stuff; Its world is consistent, and that’s enough.
    Here… fire burns everything else, except when it doesn’t; Wade gets evaporated only sometimes. There don’t seem to be rules except for what’s convenient for the script at any given time – And when that informs plot points, the movie feels really arbitrary in a bad way.
    It’s sweet and fun, so it’s not a fatal flaw, but it did annoy me.

    I was also glad there was no evil plan to get rid of the fire people or something. I know a bunch of people online like to say that the lack of clear-cut villains in disney movies is another sign of culture dying, but fuck that, bureaucratic blunders are plenty evil.

  9. There was an early version where Wade’s mom was indeed the villain trying to get rid of the fire people, but I’m glad they dropped that shit.

  10. I presume RPS: THE MOVIE will be Pixar’s first LBGTQ movie, with lesbian scissors, gay Rock Rockson, and trans paper. I’m out of ideas but I am sure they can figure it out.

    I did not like INSIDE OUT and wasn’t too enthralled by SOUL (but at least didn’t actively dislike it), and was pretty bored by INCREDIBLES 2, so Pixar officially jumped the shark for me at the end of the intro of UP. Everything they have done since has been a dud for me, and that is most of it.

  11. Hey, that was exactly my reaction to ONWARD too! When I heard the plot, I was convinced it would destroy me (for example, I ended up sobbing uncontrollably two thirds into FORD VS FERRARI because it suddenly occurred to me ‘damn, my old man would’ve fucking loved this movie’ and then the dam broke. I’m sure the people around me in the theater were very, very confused). But upon watching, the whole thing had absolutely ZERO emotional weight. That movie just did not work at all.
    This one was okay. Cute story and some great visuals.

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