I saw Elemental. I’m not here to discuss Pixar’s latest financial failure. It is unfortunate that original animated stories aren’t hitting as they did in the pre-COVID era. That only IP-driven animated films like The Super Mario Bros. Movie, Minions: The Rise of Gru, and Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse have dominated the theatrical landscape. Yes, some of these movies are very good, but it’s not so great that original animated stories have a hard time reaching audiences; whereas films like Strange World, and now Elemental, are struggling to find an audience.
Instead, I’m here to discuss my personal relationship with Pixar. A relationship that hasn’t been on the best of terms since Onward was released a week before the world changed. It was the first genuinely unimpressive Pixar film from a technical and storytelling point of view; which felt strange considering how great most of their movies have been. I’ve even defended the Cars trilogy. They’re by no means perfect, but they’re at least watchable and, more importantly, fun for kids. Small kids enjoyed Cars 2’s wild spy hijinks, while Cars 3 may have hit differently on older audience members.
Pixar will have its ups and downs like any studio, but they’ve never seemingly recovered from the COVID era. Granted, some will argue that Bob Chapek’s willingness to relegate their films from theatres to Disney+ may have killed the brand, which could be true, but that’s a topic for another article. Each film has been disappointing except for Turning Red, a bold and strikingly original animated offering from the studio. They were at least watchable. Lightyear wasn’t original but watchable and looked engaging in IMAX.
Elemental’s Plot Has Been Done Time and Again
Watching a Pixar film every year as a child felt like the start of summer. It still does. You’re still hoping that Pixar will wow you away when you step into the cinema, put on your 3D glasses, and watch their latest offering. I unabashedly love watching the Pixar lamp squash that ‘I’, signaling that what you’re going to watch will be a total banger (which you always hope will be the case). I still have that feeling to this day, and it still happened as I was watching Elemental. However, that’s about the only emotion I felt watching their latest movie.
The entire movie, based on the premise of two polar opposites (fire and water) falling in love with each other and showing their families that the impossible is indeed possible, fell completely flat. I felt absolutely nothing watching Ember Lumen (Leah Lewis) and Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie) fall in love and express their feelings. It wasn’t that it was flat-out terrible. Mamoudou Athie and Leah Lewis do their best. I feel Athie is one of the most underrated actors working today (though he hasn’t had the best streak with this and Jurassic World Dominion), and it’s great that director Peter Sohn decided not to cast A-listers in the leads. It makes it feel different from our current animated offerings that put A-listers front and center (*coughsChrisPrattcoughs*).
I felt nothing because I’d seen this story. Time and time again. And this was nothing but more of the same. I’ve always relied on Pixar to tell outside-the-box stories or to nail a simple story through its effective messaging, staggering animation, and sharp writing. Turning Red had a simple story, but its visual style, physical comedy, and fast pace made us invested in every ounce of the film from beginning to end. Elemental has a story that most animated movies have been doing for quite some time, and doesn’t bother reinventing it in a different light or in a way that will at least make it feel fresh.
When was the last time you saw a movie where an overprotective father doesn’t want his daughter to follow her aspirations until she meets someone of a different kind than her who teaches Ember to follow her dreams and be who she wants to be? Yeah, pretty much every animated movie follows that risk-free template. But it’s been hampered so many times in other animated movies that you can’t believe a studio like Pixar would ever do this, without risks or without anything meaningful to say about its story and themes of acceptance and love.
Pixar Has Always Reinvented Simple Stories But Doesn’t Feel Like It’s Trying
Even Pixar’s weakest films at least tried to do something different. Sohn’s previous effort, The Good Dinosaur, was Pixar’s first box office bomb but was vastly different from anything else the studio had done before and was far more mature and surprisingly scary than some of their most-known films. But ever since Onward, their subsequent films have been filled with recycled storylines, predictable character arcs, and forgettable worlds.
Element City looks great (it definitely warrants the extra money for 3D), but its world slowly contradicts itself by consistently shifting the dynamics between fire and water. With any animated movie aimed at families, the golden rule has always been to keep it simple. If it gets too elaborate, it will confuse your audience and, worse yet, bore the kids to tears. That’s a problem, but it’s small compared to its unimaginative and uninspiring story.
Some critics have explained that Elemental strongly parallels Sohn’s story as the son of immigrants in 1970s New York City. While you can absolutely see the parallels in the messaging, it’s also no excuse for the story to be as uninspired as it is. It doesn’t do much to change the material into a compelling film for families because doing so would mean over-complexifying an already complex and self-contradictory world.
Elemental has an imaginative world but can’t seem to explain the basic tenets of how water can magically touch fire when it couldn’t thirty minutes before. What happened? Why can they suddenly do this? Is it because they’re in love? If they can touch each other because they’re in love, why is Wade suddenly melting as the room gets warmer? Couldn’t they touch before? If you’re asking yourself all of these questions, you can’t necessarily suspend your disbelief because the movie doesn’t give you compelling reasons to embark on the journey. The voice cast tries their best but is unfortunately beholden by a story that has already been beaten to death.
It’s almost as if animation studios aren’t trying anymore. Sure, there are exceptions. Across the Spider-Verse, Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, and even The Super Mario Bros. Movie tried to do something different. Unfortunately, most current animated offerings think a half-baked story is enough to draw audiences in. In a post-COVID era, we need much more than that. Now, audiences need a reason to go to the big screen and experience something they’ve never seen before. Across the Spider-Verse may have been released on the cusp of a year when people keep yelling, “Superhero fatigue is real!” even if that’s not necessarily a thing, but the film offered something audiences hadn’t seen before and pushed the boundaries of animation much further than it was thought possible.
Give Audiences What They Want
This is what audiences crave on the big screen — things they’ve never seen before. Stuff that will make them widen their eyes and go, “Oh my gosh! That was soooooooo worth the drive!” Elemental isn’t that. It looks pretty, like every Pixar film, but that’s about it. If Pixar wants to continue dominating the animation sphere as it did in the early 2000s and 2010s, it must develop fresher ways to tell its stories. Elemental has decent ideas and messages but haphazardly presents them inside a plot we’ve seen before. Our standards aren’t high enough, but since this one underperformed badly, the studio may finally wake up. We deserve better stories. We deserve better-animated content for children. But more importantly, we deserve better movies.
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