The golden age of Pixar lasted a decade and a half, spanning ten films from Toy Story to Up. In those days the studio routinely knocked out masterpieces, and even the occasional lesser film (A Bug’s Life, Cars) was still pretty good. Pixar’s process of creative collaboration was an important part of its success, and gave the films of that era a distinctive vibe, rich in empathy, wonder, imagination, and optimism. Anthropomorphic worldbuilding was close to Pixar’s center of gravity, and a popular meme frames the premise of various Pixar films around variations on the question “What if X had feelings?” (where X = toys, fish, cars, robots, etc.), culminating in Pixar chief Pete Docter’s Inside Out: “What if feelings had feelings?”
Other than Docter himself (whose most recent film is Soul), perhaps no one at Pixar today aspires to the studio’s glory days more than Peter Sohn, director of The Good Dinosaur and now Elemental (along with the charming short Partly Cloudy). Sohn commits to his what-if worlds with a loving attention to detail comparable to Monsters, Inc. or Wall-E: in the case of Elemental, “What if the four elements — Fire, Water, Air, and Earth — had feelings?”
Elemental opens with an immigration story: Fireland natives Bernie and Cinder Lumen (Ronnie del Carmen and Shila Ommi, and yes, all the character names are elemental puns) are part of the latest wave of immigrants moving into Element City, a Zootopia-like urban community of enclaves representing the four elements. Despite some some “Fire need not apply” type prejudice from the more established elements, the Lumens manage to build a family business in Firetown, where their daughter Ember (Leah Lewis) grows up dreaming of inheriting the shop — if she can learn to control her temper. Then Ember meets a sensitive Water elemental named Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie) in highly inauspicious circumstances, and, though neither of them realizes it for a while, a gentle tale of star-crossed lovers commences.
Sohn’s movies to date are generous and sincere as well as whimsical and inventive. The protagonists of both of his feature films have loving, intact families with supportive parents who genuinely want the best for their offspring. Most of Sohn’s notable characters are good-hearted; minor characters in The Good Dinosaur included a couple of gangs of nasty predators (pterosaurs and velociraptors), but the real antagonist was nature itself. As for Elemental, it’s a rarity in US animation: a film with no nasty or villainous characters at all.
Prejudice and discrimination exist in this world, but no real hatred or bigotry comparable to King Triton’s antipathy toward surface people or Stoick’s war on dragons. There’s not much Junior Knows Best energy here, even if the young heroine winds up in some ways a bit ahead of the curve. The one moment of real parental disapproval has more to do with deceit than disobedience or fraternizing with the wrong sort.
In fact, developing a parental theme that evolved in Coco, Encanto, and especially Turning Red, in which parent-child conflict is rooted in intergenerational trauma passed down from grandparents and great-grandparents, Elemental depicts the cycle being broken by the parent rather than the child. Ember’s father Bernie is haunted by the refusal of his own father back in Fireland to give his blessing when they left to come to Element City — and Bernie is determined not to do the same to Ember, to ensure that his daughter knows she has his blessing and support.
There are so many reasons to want to root for a movie like this. (The Father’s Day weekend opening highlights the attractiveness of a family film with a likable, supportive father figure.) Alas, it pains me to say it: While it’s an improvement on The Good Dinosaur (not to mention last year’s disappointing Lightyear), Elemental still isn’t very good. When a significant part of the conflict in a cartoon about talking elemental beings turns on urban infrastructure problems, building code violations, and city bureaucracy, something has gone off the rails. I won’t say it’s impossible to make a good animated movie in which urban infrastructure and bureaucracy play a role — but what’s the point of creating a world of beings made of fire and water and so forth for a story like that?
Elemental shares a fundamental conceptual problem with another recent Pixar movie, Onward: In both films the “what if?” conceit has no fundamental connection to the ideas and emotions driving the drama. Onward is set in a Dungeons & Dragons fantasy world, and the main characters are a pair of brother elves — but while the movie has much to say about being brothers, it has nothing to say about being elves. There’s no reason for them to be elves; they just are. Contrast, for example, Inside Out, which, among other things, was about the discovery of the proper role of Sadness in the community of emotions. While Joy had long thought of Sadness as a useless, debilitating emotion, it turns out that Sadness plays an essential role in processing life experiences and moving forward.
From a design perspective, Elemental is certainly interested in the look of fire and water, and how to design an anthropomorphic elemental being: a living flame with arms, legs, and a face, or a walking water blob. The pitfalls of living cheek by jowl with other elements crop up: Splashing water is ubiquitous in Element City, and Fire elementals casually, routinely wield umbrellas to prevent potentially fatal soakings (or, occasionally, lose a portion of their bodies to an unexpected dousing, easily regenerating afterward by eating a stick). It’s obviously intentional that Ember has a fiery temper while emotional Wade easily turns on the waterworks. But what has any of this to do with the immigration story or the opposites-attract love story? What does the movie really have to say about the interrelationship of fire, water, air, and earth?
“Elements don’t mix,” Ember tells Wade at one point. Would you believe that this movie depicts Earth elementals growing vegetation and plucking fruit, but never explores the role of water in that process? How exactly does earth grow plants if “elements don’t mix”? Did the filmmakers depicting Fire elementals regenerating body parts by eating sticks never reflect that the existence of those sticks depends on all of the other elements? There’s even a scene highlighting the dependence of fire upon air — but this too is never connected to the theme of inter-elemental prejudice. At that point, you haven’t really thought the premise through. You’re pretty much just telling a dated immigration story with a venerable moral of acceptance that happens to figure whimsical-looking characters.
A more deeply imagined Elemental world might have depicted Fire arriving in a forest community where Earth, Water, and Air live in an explicitly developed symbiosis. In such a world (imagined, perhaps, in a Tolkienesque mythic mode), Fire might be seen as a dangerous, purely destructive interloper — underscored, say, by an out-of-control forest fire. Over time, though, it becomes clear that fire can play a beneficial role in the life of a forest. (I suspect it would be helpful to set the story, like Toy Story and Monsters, Inc., in an enchanted version of our world, with human beings, as opposed to a nonhuman world unto itself, like Cars or Zootopia.)
Or perhaps the time has come for Pixar to move on from “What if X had feelings?” storytelling. It’s an interesting irony that the heyday of Pixar’s empathic curiosity about other kinds of experiences came at a time when Pixar’s storytelling perspective was notably limited in important ways: Not only were the protagonists of those early movies uniformly male, reflecting the overwhelmingly male creative teams behind the films, the cultural perspective was uniformly White and fundamentally American (notwithstanding the settings of Finding Nemo and Ratatouille). There were women producers in the early days, but no women directors, and largely male writing teams. (Compounding the issue, studio head John Lasseter was eventually ousted over charges of a history of sexual misconduct creating a hostile work environment for women.) Before Sohn, whose parents emigrated from Korea, made The Good Dinosaur, there were no nonwhite Pixar directors; before Chinese-Canadian Domee Shi (another second-generation immigrant) made Turning Red, no Pixar film had been solo directed by a woman.
I appreciate the autobiographical motifs in Elemental and Turning Red. Perhaps it’s enough to tell such stories, like Turning Red, in ways that invite us to empathize with actual human beings, perhaps using fantasy elements to explore human emotions, rather than creating worlds of nonhuman characters whose nonhuman status doesn’t ultimately matter much.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.