Pixar hits big so often that it’s pretty disappointing when they miss. It’s not that their newest feature, the romantic comedy Elemental, is actively bad. There are some great visuals and a few amusing gags. However, there is a depth of feeling usually present in Pixar productions that is almost entirely missing here. The story is formulaic and the characters are pleasant in a blandly unengaging way. The concept comes off as sadly one-note, with a couple of promising ideas that are then stretched out to fill a 93-minute run time (not including the end credits). It is certainly not a terrible experience. Still, it is hard to recommend it when Pixar has done so much better, so many times.
The premise, as it frequently is in animation these days, centers on a world like ours in outline, but consisting of no humans (think of Monsters Inc., Zootopia or The Emoji Movie). In this case, the residents are elements, representing fire, water, air and soil. They all live in Element City, except for fire, which are outcasts due to their combustible nature. Ember is a hard-working flame on the verge of inheriting her father’s store when a leak in the basement results in Wade, a water guy working as a building inspector, popping out of the pipes. Together, the two of them embark on a modest adventure to save her family’s business.
The designs are kind of cool and the early visual jokes about how the elements mix (or don’t) are mildly funny. Then, by around the halfway point, it becomes obvious that the filmmakers didn’t have anything beyond those initial ideas. It definitely doesn’t help that the personalities of the characters only superficially fit what element they are (fire has a hot-temper; water cries a lot). The screenplay barely builds upon our first impressions. Inside/Out this is not.
The most underwhelming part of Elemental, more than the thinness of the story or lack of creativity past the high-concept, is the characters. They are tremendously routine for a family movie, with no complexity and no layers. Ember is kind and does everything for her parents. Wade is sweet and a people-pleaser. They aren’t fun to watch together and there is no spice or wit to them. They are generic and boring (plus, Wade tends toward annoying). The predictable opposites attract plot puts them through all of the familiar paces, without making me care.
The specifics of the city, such as Ember’s dad’s shop or Wade’s family’s apartment, are well done. When the animators focused on how the water or fire could make for a unique environment, this can be exciting to look at. Yet Element City as a whole isn’t very interesting. It is supposed to look futuristic, but has no personality. There is no sense of space, so there is no sense of risk when Ember or Wade leaves their world. The scene where they attend a sporting event that is sort of like basketball for clouds suggests the exact type of creativity this could have used way more of. Giving each of the elements their own characteristics is great, so long as they mix, match and clash entertainingly. Elemental doesn’t really do that.
It is far from an awful movie. It is more of a letdown. Though this is probably their worst effort since The Good Dinosaur (the studio’s low point), it is easy to watch, occasionally funny and nice to look at. It is below Pixar’s standard, while still being serviceable enough for American animation. It is an okay-ish diversion, but thinking of someone going to see it when Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is in theaters makes me sad.
2¾ out of 5
Leah Lewis as Ember
Mamoudou Athie as Wade
Ronnie Del Carmen as Bernie
Shila Ommi as Cinder
Wendi McLendon-Covey as Gale
Catherine O’Hara as Brook
Directed by Peter Sohn
Screenplay by John Hoberg, Kat Likkel and Brenda Hsueh