Elemental review: Pixar’s culture clash allegory overcomplicates itself

When the first, noticeably tepid reviews of Elemental flowed out of the Cannes Film Festival in May, Pixar couldn’t help but blame its audience’s own lofty expectations. “We seem to be critiqued not only based on other movies but on our own stuff,” studio head Pete Docter told Variety at the time. On the one hand, he was employing the sort of mandated PR talk that positions “fans” against “critics” and perceives everything remotely critical as a personal attack. On the other hand, he has a point.

After nearly three decades of forcing audiences to choke on their own sobs, Pixar now faces a conundrum: if one of their films fails to trigger an existential crisis, it can feel like a betrayal. It’s a curse of the studio’s own making. They’ve built an entire brand on purified emotions, so when those ingredients are lacking, it is painfully obvious. Elemental, their 27th movie, is gentle and humane but never raw or vulnerable.

It’s based, as Pixar films tend to be, on a semi-philosophical thought exercise: what if the fire, water, earth and air elements were all sentient beings? And what if two opposites – fire and water – fell in love? The best of these high-concept Pixar films (from Toy Story to Inside Out) draw out the simplistic from the elaborate. Sentient figurines need friends; sentient feelings need purpose. But Elemental overcomplicates itself. It’s a straightforward romcom that’s also about culture clashes. And the systemic racism in city infrastructures. And the expectations immigrant parents place on their children.

A fire couple (voiced by Ronnie Del Carmen and Shila Ommi) land at the Ellis Island-style harbour of Element City, their names anglicised by the border guard to Bernie and Cindy Lumen. They do their best to build a life for themselves in a city that’s overtly hostile to their existence – the fire district, for example, is bordered by overhead water channels that periodically spill over and threaten to snuff them out. They run a store that services the local community and raise a daughter, Ember (Leah Lewis), primed to take over once they retire. But her fiery (in the literal sense) temper makes her a liability. And, what’s worse, one particularly explosive flare-up ruptures the pipes in the store’s basement and shoots out a sensitive, frequently blubbering water person named Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie). Sparks fly.

There’s real beauty in Elemental, particularly in an underwater sequence that captures the adventurous, exploratory nature of first love, and in the expressive but finely-tuned rendition of Ember’s flamed tresses. The voice work is stellar, too, with Athie’s soft, tremulous tones a far better match than whatever A-lister could have been dropped into the role for publicity’s sake. Director Peter Sohn, born to Korean immigrant parents, was inspired both by his childhood and his marriage to someone outside of Korean culture. Yet this movie – with a screenplay by John Hoberg, Kat Likkel, and Brenda Hsueh – frustratingly attempts an all-encompassing view of immigrant life in America.

The fire people’s language, accents and traditions (for example, their love of “hot” food) are a mishmash of Asian, Middle Eastern and North African (MENA), and Eastern European influences. The water people, then, are meant to be the presumably white-coded beneficiaries of privilege: they are relatively unburdened by life and can publicly express their emotions without judgement. Audiences may be able to pick out some personal truths here and there. Still, Elemental is non-specific to the point that it feels impersonal – which is surely against Pixar’s own ethos.

Dir: Peter Sohn. Starring: Leah Lewis, Mamoudou Athie, Ronnie del Carmen, Shila Ommi, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Catherine O’Hara. PG, 109 minutes.

‘Elemental’ is in cinemas from 7 July