MickeyBlog Movie Review: Elemental
A few days ago, The Walt Disney Company did Pixar a disservice by screening Elemental at the Cannes Film Festival.
In terms of knowing your audience, this is roughly the equivalent of discussing Real Housewives on NPR. It’s the wrong topic with the wrong crowd.
Sadly, an early news cycle about negative reviews created a perception that Pixar has missed again with its latest release.
I’m here to tell you that this isn’t the case at all. No, Elemental isn’t on the level of masterpieces like WALL-E or Up, but it’s a charmer.
The Story of Elemental
The concept of star-crossed lovers has driven storytelling for centuries now. And writer/director Peter Sohn has come up with a doozy.
Elemental explores a city wherein all four elements of society live together…sort of.
One group proves too dangerous for the rest. So, the fire elementals become outcasts, generally left to their own part of town.
Here, Bernie and Cinder Lumen – not their given names – build a life for themselves and their daughter, Ember.
The parents find a dilapidated building that looks like a literal tree house and repair it.
Eventually, the bottom floor becomes Bernie’s restaurant, The Fireplace, an integral part of daily life in Fire Town.
For her part, Cinder reads fortunes of a sort in her own part of this space. She has a nose for whether couples are experiencing true love.
Soon afterward, the horribly named Wade Ripple appears as a local inspector. Wade Ripple is – you guessed it – a water elemental.
During Wade’s first encounter with Ember, her temperament partially creates a problem with lasting ramifications for her family.
To solve the problem, Ember joins Wade in trying to save The Fireplace.
As you’d expect, the two of them are like oil and water, but opposites attract.
Alas, someone made of water and someone made of water cannot even touch. Will they fall in love anyway?
You can guess the answer to that question, and the movie leans into that fact. This isn’t a will they/won’t they story. It’s a “Can they?”
The Realm of Element City
Anytime we discuss a Pixar movie, the visuals double as a subplot.
Animators must prove that the latest film lives up to the standards of the Pixar library, which is a big ask.
With Elemental, I found myself gaping in awe at several points.
I won’t get into the whole “Should you watch this in a theater” debate, as I know that many of you won’t watch Elemental that way.
Instead, I’ll state that settings for Element City rival any animated movie in recent memory.
Personally, the last time I found an animated movie so visually stimulating was WALL-E.
In fact, I thought about that film multiple times. There’s a scene in Elemental that’s arguably either the first or second for Ember and Wade.
That two or three minutes of storytelling forcibly reminds me of the outer space sequence from WALL-E. I’m referencing this one:
That’s as high as my praise gets for a single scene. In fact, that sequence made me so happy that I found myself listening to this song a lot:
Ordinarily, I’m not an autotune fan, but the magic of that moment has shaped my perception of the song.
To its credit, Elemental offers two such scenes. Alas, the film itself isn’t as consistent as WALL-E.
I’m mentioning the comparison to make the point that parts of Elemental will make your heart sing.
Others are…just okay.
Elemental Isn’t Perfect
I suspect some of the Cannes critics watched the first five minutes of Elemental and then never gave it a chance afterward.
We all do this with certain titles. If something doesn’t grab us, we stop giving it our full attention and a fair shake at winning us over.
With Elemental, the story begins with Bernie and Cinder fresh off the boat. That’s not even a metaphor.
Their story begins as they exit a boat. The immigration subtext here isn’t very subtle. This probably alienated some.
I understand that perspective, just as I recognize that Elemental faces the same criticism that WALL-E once did.
As magical as WALL-E is, I wouldn’t describe the movie as funny. Viewers find comfort in comedy.
Disney and Pixar animated films generally offer their fair share, but Elemental’s jokes are mostly of the variety that don’t draw attention.
Yes, the fire and water elements walk through a fence, and you’ve probably seen the sponge gag from the trailer.
Part of the explanation stems from the lack of characters. I would guess that six of the characters claim 90 percent of the dialogue.
Mostly, the would-be lovers and her parents do the talking.
There’s one character who appears for comic relief, but that pre-teen earth elemental lifts right out of the story.
I suspect the kid made the cut because Elemental is already on the short side for Pixar films at 102 minutes.
Once we remove eight minutes of credits, it’s just a 90-minute movie. And it still feels a bit long at times.
Why I Really Like Elemental
While Elemental isn’t perfect, I still consider it one of Pixar’s better recent titles.
I should preface this by saying that my Pixar tastes are…singularly unique.
For example, I found Toy Story 3 overly long and boring but loved Toy Story 4.
I also fell asleep during the very popular Luca and found The Good Dinosaur borderline unwatchable.
Still, I feel so strongly about the overriding quality and story of Elemental that I bristle at its negative reviews.
As I type this, Elemental is 77 percent fresh at Rotten Tomatoes, and I gnash my teeth at the 23 percent who disliked it enough to give it a thumbs down.
No, this film isn’t perfect, but it’s really good and extraordinarily well-intended.
Cinema needs more stories like this that combine romance with science, which is quietly a real thing that happens.
I know you’re not reading that and thinking, “Woo! Science!” But Ember’s skills with fire-shaping are visually impressive and scientifically brilliant.
As for the relationship that drives the story, Ember and Wade work well as a forbidden romance with a sweet emotional center.
This is a gentle, optimistic movie that everyone should enjoy to some degree. The only question is whether you like it or love it.
I fall somewhere in the middle of those two, but I’m leaning toward “love it.”
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