Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. Disney releases the film in theaters on Friday, June 16.
So much of modern Pixar comes mired in “almost’s” and “what-if’s,” and Peter Sohn’s “Elemental” is no exception. It’s as conflicted as they come: a heavy-handed, mixed bag immigrant metaphor punctuated by a genuinely moving romance. It gets frequently lost down the rabbit-hole of its own conceptual details, but at the same time, it yields occasionally stunning images and thoughtful aesthetics — like Thomas Newman’s incredibly effective Indian-inspired score — resulting in a film that embodies the very best and worst of the studio’s recent output, defined more by its potential than whether or not it fulfills it.
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Sohn’s last directorial venture, “The Good Dinosaur,” was an unfortunate victim — along with “Soul” and “Toy Story 4” — of the strange Pixar era where environmental realism was the emerging lingua franca. This left cartoonish characters feeling awkward, and visually adrift. However, this time around, “Elemental” is set in Element City, a whole cloth creation that exists outside our reality, with its enormous cloud towers and water-splashing monorails, but one that’s meant to work as a metaphor for the modern United States.
People made of water, trees, clouds, and flame — having immigrated in that order — make up the citizenry of this sprawling, storybook metropolis, but unlike the first three groups, its fire residents have not yet fully integrated or assimilated, owing to the rampant prejudice against them. Granted, this set up presents a bit of an X-Men problem (or, more vitally, a “Zootopia” problem, in which herbivores are prejudiced against carnivores) since the flame people do pose a legitimate danger, but hopefully the four-year-olds in the audience won’t mind.
Our story begins with apprehensive migrant flame-couple Útrí dár ì Bùrdì (Ronnie del Carmen) and a pregnant Fâsh ì Síddèr (Shila Ommi) entering through the city’s version of Ellis Island, and being saddled with the simplified (see: Anglicized) names Bernie and Cinder Lumen by their immigration officer. Before long, they start their own convenience store, where they practically raise their daughter, Ember (Leah Lewis), in the hopes that one day she’ll inherit the family business.
From the word go, the story of “Elemental” reflects the broad strokes of the American immigrant experience, but it begins to get muddled — slowly at first, and then rather quickly — when it tries to get specific. It pulls details from various real cultures to create its fire community, “the Firish,” born from a mix of minor traditions borrowed from various East Asian, Middle Eastern, and European cultures, and accents that seem to shift between Italian, Hispanic, Iranian, and West Indian at the drop of a hat. The idea may be for immigrant and first generation kids to be able to find some sort of recognition, but the result is del Carmen and Ommi playing an uncomfortable game of ethnic hopscotch with their vocal performances, with practically every line dedicated to some malformed pun unlikely to elicit even chuckle (in Element City, hot dogs are called hot logs, because they’re made of logs).
This racial mishmash is a capital “B” Bad Idea with good intentions, but thankfully, the more personal elements of the story are often strong enough that these unsavory optics can be temporarily brushed aside. Lumen, apart from being rendered with some truly otherworldly animation — a 2D creature in a 3D world — is also the rare Pixar character defined by an uncomfortable cultural dilemma. Immigrant stories where first-gen kids feel torn between family and career, or the individual and the collective, are a dime a dozen at this point, but while a similar dynamic defines Lumen’s story, it’s the backdrop to something a little more intimate.
Her relationship with her father is central; it’s sweet, if sometimes jagged, with the weight of expectation being as much a gift as it is a burden. In his broken English, he calls her his “good daughter,” and she lovingly refers to him as “ashfa” — the honorific for “father” in their language — but Lumen also struggles with a burning temper whose origins she fails to fully recognize, and which manifests as her red-and-yellow flame turning dangerously purple.
The plot is kicked into motion when the store gets accidentally flooded in Bernie’s absence, and Lumen is left to deal city inspector Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie), a sheltered but empathetic and sensitive (to the point of sappy) water-person who decides to help her, if it means keeping her father’s business afloat. This results in a whole lot of half-baked plot being pumped into the movie within very little time — mostly involving a quest to discover a rather mundane leak — but thankfully, its flimsiness ends up a blessing in disguise, since this subplot easily shoved aside when it comes time to let Wade and Ember interact.
While nearly every line plays like a missed shot at a double-entendre, the film bursts to life when no one is talking, thanks to some gorgeous, eye-popping visuals born from the mysterious way light interacts with both characters during montages, tipping the film into abstract territory. Hollywood couples comprising short-tempered women and sensitive men are in short supply to begin with, let alone when they take such interesting physical and vocal forms (Lewis’ straightforward, smoky delivery mixes amusingly well with Athie’s unrestrained bubbliness and his tendency to bawl).
Once you get past the movie’s mal-formed mechanics — water people are made of water, but they aren’t water themselves; tree people, similarly, don’t seem to mind people eating “hot logs” — and if you’re ready to take the movie at its word, when it comes to water and fire being equally dangerous to one another, then its story is not entirely untoward. Wade and Ember are reluctant to touch for this reason, but the way they frolic through the city, and soften and strengthen one another, makes for Pixar’s first genuine romance since Carl and Ellie (albeit with slightly happier results than the opening scene of “Up”).
Even when things don’t quite add up, and get lost in a pile of mixed metaphors, Thomas Newman’s score rushes in to uplift the entire film, with its use of classical Indian instruments like sitars, tabla drums, and bansuri flutes, and vocalizations in Indian raags that range from thrilling to soul-touching, especially when they’re peppered with the occasional subdued acoustic guitar or hint of electronica. “Elemental” may be rife with lip-service to cultural specifics — so many that they end up a cultural hodgepodge — but its music is the one aesthetic choice that fully embodies the bi-cultural notions the film so desperately attempts to dramatize.
Despite its confused and overstuffed worldbuilding, “Elemental” has enough charming moments to get by, even if its meaning lies less in its ill-conceived immigrant saga, and more in the personal drama that lives a few layers beneath it.
“Elemental” premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. Disney will release it in theaters on Friday, June 16.
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