Elementary Review: A Film That Seems To Be Afraid Of Itself

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When exactly did this happen? When did Pixar lose the mojo on him?


Once upon a time in Hollywood, the studio name became synonymous with quality. Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Finding Nemo — These titles became box office giants, earning great respect as some of the most groundbreaking and beloved films of all time. The movies continued the legacy started by Walt Disney with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves of making mass-market family entertainment with real artistry, and the creative minds at Pixar—the “Brain Trust” as they became known—seemed capable of anything. Disney, after the company bought Pixar outright in 2006, also turned to the Brain Trust to retool movies outside of the Pixar banner both live-action (tron: legacy) and animation (Wreck It Ralph).

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So how could the studio that seemed incapable of doing anything less than amazing become so mediocre?

Take the latest Pixar outing, Elementary. Like Pixar at its best, the film breaks new technical ground in the realm of computer animation. It also features some of the best art direction on film in recent memory. But despite a good cast, the movie never coalesces into anything more than passable entertainment.


The standard elemental plot

Elementary tells the story of Ember (voiced by Leah Lewis, from half of that), a young woman made of fire who lives in Element City, a huge metropolis populated by anthropomorphic characterizations of the four elements: air, earth, fire, and water. Ember grows up as a first generation fire elemental in Element City, her parents immigrating before her birth, and she hopes to one day take over her shop and carry on her family traditions.

Infrastructure problems at the family business run by Ember run afoul of Wade (Mamoudou Athie), a water elemental working for the city. Ember has grown fearful of water elementals in particular, as exposure to the fluid could extinguish her existence. However, Wade and Ember have an immediate attraction to each other, and an unlikely romance blossoms when the pair team up to save Ember’s family store.

Related: Exclusive: The Cast And Crew Of Elemental On Crafting An Immigrant Story For The Pixar Legacy

And that is the depth of the story. Unlikely friendships have become a staple of Pixar movies, dating back to toy story. Two characters mistrust each other, must work together and eventually become friends. Elementary it falls into that mode all too easily, never really offering any deeper thoughts on love between different socioeconomic classes. Compare that to the metaphors for pain and death in toy Story 3overprotective parents in Finding Nemo, or environmentalism in wall-e.

Elemental is at odds with itself

Elementary
Walt Disney Studios

To be fair, Elementary he gestures in the direction of deeper social commentary. Director Peter Sohn has said that his own experience as a first-generation Korean-American informed the story of Elementary. That shows in some of the best scenes in the movie, like when Ember and her family experience bigotry and culture shock. But aside from presenting the concepts of xenophobia and racism at an embryonic level, the film doesn’t really deal with either problem, instead relying on hackneyed romance as its plot device. It seems as if Elementary he is afraid of the very ideas he wants to confront.

Also, the story plays fast and loose with its physics. The water damages Ember, and the fire threatens to evaporate Wade into nothing… until the two decide to hold hands and neither is hurt. That belies the central flaw of the concept, that Elementary it is used as a gimmick to create wild sights and sight jokes.

The film doesn’t feature a dull moment when it comes to visuals, providing footage of air elementals emerging from a Zeppelin’s balloon instead of the cockpit, and water elementals traversing the city via pipes. One of the first shots in the film, the presentation of Element City, recalls the first view of the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz. The picture is impressive, but the movie never quite measures up. The overall dynamic of Element City is not explored in Elementaryrelegating the elementals of earth and air to minor and secondary characters.

Related: Game of Thrones Linguistics Veteran Hired to Create Language for Pixar’s Elemental

The visual appeal, along with a delicate score by Thomas Newman, go a long way to keeping Elementary interesting, even when its history wears thin. Sometimes, he’s even downright smart. A scene where Wade must figure out a way to light some incense features some of the most inspired writing in the film. Lewis and Athie, while never appearing on screen together, also have strong chemistry and manage to bring real humanity to inhuman, underwritten characters. Supporting turns from Wendy McLendon-Covey and Catherine O’Hara also add to the fun.

But even the best moments of Elementary remind viewers of their wasted potential. While it should keep audiences entertained throughout its runtime, the repetitive story and weird concept won’t keep it in the memory for long. Like a toy advertised on a cereal box, it looks shiny on the outside, but it’s completely disposable.

Pixar’s Disturbing Trend

Leah Lewis and Mamoudou Athie in Elementary
Walt Disney Studios

As with more recent Pixar outings, Light Year, Soul, Luca – Elemental it has a tremendous amount of talent on screen, but it doesn’t amount to much. Maybe it’s because the OG Pixar Brain Trust, which included the likes of Andrew Stanton, John Lasseter, and Brad Bird, have moved on to other projects. On the other hand, some Pixar sequels like Stanton’s Finding Dory and bird incredibles 2 also suffered from some of the same problems as Elementary.

Perhaps Pixar’s corporate parent has developed an allergy to some of the risks that made the studio’s early movies so powerful. Or maybe money and success have quenched the creative hunger that led a group of Silicon Valley renegades to become some of cinema’s most audacious storytellers.

The debate is likely to continue long after the public has forgotten about Elementary. Disney Animation experienced a similar downturn in the 1960s and 1970s. After decades of groundbreaking classics, the Disney brand became stale, producing a number of titles that sit in the second or third tier of the Disney canon. Here’s hoping that one day Pixar will experience the same kind of groundbreaking Renaissance that produced another two decades of Disney animated classics in the ’80s and ’90s.

For now, however, count ElementaryAlong with the rest of Pixar’s recent titles, among the also-rans.

From Walt Disney Studios, Elemental hits theaters June 16.

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