Movie Review: Elemental

Okay, maybe one more.

With my previous review, I said I was finished writing about movies, but I wasn’t 100% truthful about why. It has gotten harder to do, it’s true, but the fact of the matter is that when I move to Madison (for those not connected to me on socials, we’re moving to Wisconsin), I have to resign from the Columbus Film Critics Association, so bye bye early screenings. Once that happens, odds are you all will see more movies than I do. You probably already do, at this point.

But it’s okay. I had a great run, 18 years as a member of a truly gifted and eclectic group of writers. I wish them all the best, and I’m thankful for the time we had together.

Okay, here we go.

It is not unfair to say that Pixar is mired in a miserable slump. Yes, “Incredibles 2” made crazy money, as did “Toy Story 4,” and yes, “Soul” won the Oscar for Best Animated Film. Yes, “Turning Red” had a wacky sensibility (the boy band scene at the Rogers Centre was pure gold), but none of those films is anyone’s favorite Pixar movie (heck, “Toy Story 4” shouldn’t even exist), never mind “Luca,” “Onward,” or “Lightyear.”

Coco” was the last time they knocked it out of the park. That was six years ago. That’s an entire generation in the eyes of Pixar’s target audience.

And now comes “Elemental,” a visual marvel saddled with a shockingly outdated story line. The story line is the lesser problem, though; the larger problem is Pixar’s newfound inability to write interesting dialogue. Their films used to be cleverer than this, more playful and much funnier. One summer, we drove back from visiting family, and the kids watched “Finding Nemo” in the back seat. Without seeing a single frame, I found myself laughing constantly. That is a genuinely funny, quotable movie. “Elemental,” on the other hand, plays like it was written by the Neutrals from “Futurama.”

Ember (Leah Lewis) lives in the Fire Town section of the metropolis Element City. Her parents run a general store, one that Ember will eventually take over. One day, when Ember’s father lets her open the store, Ember’s combustible temper leads to water damage (which is naturally a problem), and in that damage comes Wade (Mamoudou Athie), a water-based safety inspector who has no choice but to issue citations to Ember’s family for a litany of violations, though Wade offers to help her once he realizes how dire Ember’s situation is.

Ember needs Wade’s help, but also holds him at arm’s length after absorbing her father’s prejudices against water types her entire life. Over time, though, she sees Wade for who he is: kind and curious, so in addition to needing to convince the city not to shut down their store, she needs to distract her parents from the fact that she’s been spending time with, and developing feelings for, a water person.

After this point, the story falls apart. There is a plot thread about the mystery of water flowing into Fire Town, but it feels like any government agency worth its salt could have figured out the problem without much effort. There is a moment of manufactured conflict where the city employees refuse to do their job out of spite because, you know, that’s something that they’re allowed to do.

The fire people are clearly meant to represent Irish immigrants in the 1950s, discriminated against at every opportunity (they even speak Fireish, subtle). The Saoirse Ronan movie “Brooklyn” crossed my mind more than once, hence the outdated story line comment earlier. While the ‘My family came from the old country with nothing and it’s my responsibility to continue the family business whether I like it or not’ story is still a thing, it hasn’t been a big thing in 70 years.

Fortunately, its heart is in the right place. Ember and Wade are a cute couple, and they use science to their advantage to stir up a gutting climax. The animation is, as usual, top-notch.

Apart from that gutting climax, though, this story about family doesn’t have much in the way of emotional depth. Ember spends a lot of time not talking about her feelings, seemingly for plot convenience, and apart from that one big scene, it was hard to care about the rest of it.

It’s good to see that Pixar has gotten sequelitis out of their system, but many of their recent, original films are just not fully formed. It’s frustrating, because the conversation Pixar is trying to start is important – we need to talk about racism and stereotypes, please – but again, the dialogue is flat as the earth according to Shaquille O’Neal. By comparison, “The Super Mario Brothers Movie” doesn’t aspire to anything along the lines of what “Elemental” goes for here. It’s loud, and it’s dumb…but it was more fun to watch.

And that’s it, in the end. Pixar movies just aren’t as fun as they used to be. And that makes me sad.

2.5 out of 5 stars (2.5 / 5)
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