Sunday, June 18, 2023


Pixar’s Elemental takes the animation studio’s formula and narrows its focus until it’s something more, well, elemental. It reminds us that, for all the high-concept world-building their films have done—from the secret life of toys, to the various monster, fish, superhero, and car societies they’ve revealed—the studio’s best at making clear, clean metaphors to explore surprisingly nuanced human emotion. Sure, they have the impressively detailed and technically accomplished animation brightly and bouncily deployed for hurry-scurry high-energy kid-friendly plots. But underneath, and driving the action, can be sadness, loneliness, longing. They find vivid, broad expressions of complicated feelings—family therapy in the guise of rip-roaring entertainments. This latest picture is in a fantasyland where earth and water and wind beings live alongside each other. Their gleaming, towering metropolis is built for their comfort, and thus the immigrant fire people must eke out a living in this space that’s literally not built for them. These beings are made of the elements, little flickering flame folks and sloshing water drops and big burly clouds animated with fuzzy lines and indistinct boundaries that drift and blur. It’s an odd sight that quick settles into sense, a shifting cartoony delight, always in flickering, bubbling, flowing motion. Director and co-writer Peter Sohn finds quick-witted detail in the background, and lets the artifice of the place just be. The movie spends next to no time world-building, and instead spends its time situating a smaller character piece in the larger whole. This isn’t as robustly imagined on the macro level as top tier Pixar, but it gets so many little details right that the overall picture is engaging throughout.

Rather than expanding its immigrant story metaphor out into a Zootopia-esque disquisition on racist implications of infrastructure planning, it’s a small family story about a struggling store, and the fiery daughter who might take over, but for an unexpected romance burgeoning. Is this the stuff of a kids’ movie? It has the sparkle and dazzle and quick wit and zippy colors of one. But these emotions are tougher, and appeal to a complicated worldview. The marriage is pure picture book metaphor—not enough to take the world of its fiction as a real place, but as a whimsical outgrowth of something real. Pixar knows how to put the ordinary in extraordinary. And so the movie rests on a daughter hoping to make her father proud, and the tension between keeping the home fires burning and finding a new path. That’s represented by a cute water guy with whom she just might have chemistry. This grounds the movie in a romantic comedy formula that plays neatly off the dovetailing of stereotypes between the characters and their elements. The fire girl has a hot temper and smoky looks that make her beau boil. The water boy is a transparently guileless fellow, and is quick to find tears in his eyes. They’re told they shouldn’t be together—it might extinguish her potential, or cause him to evaporate. But, somehow, opposites just might attract, and Pixar’s once again good at letting consequences play out, both in their families’ emotional lives, and in the way bright light sparkles through water.

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