As recently as three years ago, the thought of Pixar as a brand in crisis would have been laughable. But it’s amazing – or depressing – what a pivot towards streaming can do. After three of the CG animation studio’s best recent works (Soul, Luca, Turning Red) were sent straight to Disney+, while its emptiest ever (Lightyear) was given a grand theatrical rollout, Pixar films were no longer the white-knuckle imagination rides that had to be caught in the cinema, whatever your age: they’d largely been diminished to try-at-home sweeteners for loyal Disney customers.
This all means that Elemental – which has just premiered in the ominously named “last screening” slot at Cannes – has a responsibility that its makers could have never anticipated. It’s the Pixar film that has to remind its audience what a Pixar film is.
Its premise certainly fits the famous Pixar formula – what if x had feelings? – to an almost self-parodic degree. Once you’ve done toys with feelings (Toy Story), monsters with feelings (Monsters Inc), robots with feelings (Wall-E) and even feelings with feelings (Inside Out), a story about the fundamental components of physical reality itself, as conceptualised by the ancient Greeks, with feelings seems like a logical next stop.
Set in a fantastical cultural-melting-pot city, Elemental is a romantic racial harmony parable centred on Ember Lumen (Leah Lewis) and Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie) – one a fiery assistant in her father’s corner shop, the other a drippy member of the city’s health and safety inspectorate. When these two get together things get steamy, and that’s the problem. Elements aren’t meant to mix, so instead the four populations generally rub along amicably but separately, taking care not to singe one another’s branches or douse their flames.
With their hot food, strong work ethic and rigid sense of intergenerational duty, the fire folk are a fuzzy composite of Indian, Middle and Far Eastern ex-pat communities. But great care is taken in the script not to draw any direct racial parallels – made 20 years ago, this would have been a very different (and probably now borderline-cancelled) film.
Element City is a colourful place, full of nimble visual gags and eye-catching background detail. But the place doesn’t quite hang together as a living city in the same way as the conceptually similar one in Disney’s own 2016 film Zootropolis – and unlike the inner landscapes of Inside Out, its cleverness is all surface-level, with no buried surprises or ingenuities that reveal themselves only with shifts in the plot.
What’s more, the film’s own self-inflicted rules prove enough of an encumbrance that it occasionally has to bend them when it hopes no one’s looking. Being made of fire, Ember has to take care not to melt things, but that doesn’t apply to the inflatable rubber furniture in Wade’s mother’s waterlogged apartment. As for the sequence in which Wade takes Ember underwater to see a rare subaquatic flower, just enjoy the trippily kaleidoscopic light show and Thomas Newman’s swirling New Age score, and don’t think too hard about what on earth that bubble she’s sitting inside is doing.
Ember and Wade’s romance (they meet after he accidentally leaks into her cellar) initially feels like an excuse to tour Element City’s landmarks. But thanks too some of Pixar’s most open-hearted writing in a while, it develops into a genuinely sweet and moving courtship. Nor is it drowned out by the obligatory high-stakes finish – floodwaters surge towards the fire district – which instead affectingly tests the pair’s blossoming love. While unlikely to feature on many people’s favourite Pixar lists, Elemental brings with it the satisfying creak of a ship being righted.
Cert PG, 93 min