Though hardly the studio's best, it feels like a step in the right direction – partly thanks to Mamadou Athie's brilliant voice work
It’s no secret that Pixar, once the name in event-level blockbuster family entertainment alongside the like of Star Wars, Spider-Man, and Harry Potter, have been having a bit of an identity crisis recently. Suffering from a case of sequel-itis at the cinema while Disney left their original stuff to languish on streaming, the former industry leaders for western animation have struggled to keep ahead of the pack. It’s a struggle that is visible throughout all of their latest, Elemental, a charming but derivative-feeling film that, for all its good points, shows the sure and sad signs of the once-imitated becoming the imitators.
The somewhat glib summation of Pixar’s output has always been the pitch “what if X had feelings?”, and Elemental dives right into that tradition. In this case, it’s the feelings of the anthropomorphised four elements (fire, water, air, earth) at stake. They all live in the four separate quarters of Element City, generally getting along but encouraged not to mix between elements, especially when it comes to the residents of Firetown, home to hot-headed heroine Ember (Leah Lewis). Trying to stick to the rules to be a good daughter to her hard-working immigrant parents, Ember finds herself falling for Wade (Mamadou Athie), a sweet-natured and over-emotional water being.
Element City looks great, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that we’ve done a lot of this before – the worldbuilding isn’t as complete as the very similarly-themed Zootopia, while the designs, while obviously flawless on a technical level, are never as intriguing as, say, the inner workings of the mind in Inside Out. The classic Pixar magic touch of taking us to a truly undiscovered country has been missing for a while now, and sadly Elemental doesn’t quite fix that; its world is full of splashy razzle-dazzle, but not a huge amount of personality.
It doesn’t help that this also isn’t a particularly funny entry into the Pixar canon – the demands of a busy plot involving family legacies, failing infrastructure, class divides, and romance don’t leave much room for jokes. There is an affecting thread about what it’s like to grow up in an immigrant household in a place that doesn’t care for you – the other elements’ anti-fire bigotry is a grounding force – but director Peter Sohn and his writing team are just throwing too much at the wall here.
What, thankfully, does really work is the love story. This is Pixar’s first out-and-out romance and they mostly nail it, thanks to intuitive and empathetic character work and two powerful lead voice performances from Lewis and, especially, Athie. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Athie single-handedly elevates Elemental with a funny and amazingly richly textured turn – his voice work grounds the romance in something tangibly real that is vital to the classic “tearful Pixar ending” landing. Elemental is not Pixar’s deepest, most imaginative, or accessible film (a few of the kids in my screening were getting restless before the grand finale), but, at its best, does still feel like a step in the right direction for this venerated but troubled studio.
Elemental is released in UK cinemas on 7 July.Where to watch