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Pixar's animated take on 'Romeo and Juliet' is glowing to look at, but feels like the studio at its most watered-down.
By Sarah Ward
June 13, 2023
By Sarah Ward
June 13, 2023

When Pixar is at its best and brightest, the animation house's gorgeous and heartfelt films flow across the silver screen. They glow with colour, creativity, sincerity and emotion. In movies such as WALL-E, Inside Out, Soul, Toy Story 4, Up and Ratatouille, the Disney-owned company's work floats beyond the ordinary as it flickers — and yet, it's also grounded in genuine feelings and insights, even while embracing the now Pixar-standard "what if robots, playthings, rats and the like had feelings?" setup over and over. Accordingly, it makes sense that the studio's Elemental draws upon the sensations that its features usually inspire. It seems like something that was always destined to happen, in fact. And, it's hardly surprising that its latest picture anthropomorphises fire, water, air and earth, and ponders these aspects of nature having emotions. What's less expected is how routine this just-likeable and sweet-enough film is, with the Pixar template lukewarm instead of an inferno and hovering rather than soaring.

Elemental also treads water, despite vivid animation, plus the noblest of aims to survey the immigrant experience, opposites attracting, breaking down cultural stereotypes and borders, and complicated parent-child relationships. The Captain Planet-meets-Romeo and Juliet vibe that glinted through the movie's trailers proves accurate, and also something that the feature is happy sticking with exactly as that formula sounds. Although filmmaker Pete Sohn (The Good Dinosaur) draws upon his own upbringing as the son of Korean expats growing up in New York City and its distinctive neighbourhoods — that his family ran a grocery store is worked in as well — and his own marriage, his second stint as a director is too by-the-numbers, easy and timid. Elemental looks like a Pixar film, albeit taking a few visual cues from Studio Ghibli in some character-design details (its bulbous grassy creatures noticeably resemble Totoro), but it largely comes across like a copy or a wannabe.

Ember Lumen (Leah Lewis, Nancy Drew), the feisty fire sprite at the picture's centre, has footsteps to follow in herself: not just William Shakespeare's most famous couple without the tragedy given that this is an all-ages-friendly Pixar release, but also her father Bernie's (Ronnie del Carmen, Soul). With her mother Cinder (Shila Ommi, Tehran), he left their homeland behind for better opportunities, worked hard to overcome prejudice and discrimination, and started The Fireplace, which sparked Element City's whole Firetown district — and, since she first started simmering, he has always told his daughter that it was all for her. But Ember's temper is heated. It's prone to boiling over with frustrating customers, which doesn't bode well for a convenience-store proprietor. So, while she's spent her whole life preparing to take over the terracotta- and iron-filled shop when her dad retires, he's never been convinced that she's ready.

Bernie adores Ember, has put his entire flame into the family business and is as passionate about only one other thing, apart from Cinder. Due to the xenophobia and unkindness that greeted him when he first arrived in Element City, he's scorchingly certain that fire and other elements don't and shouldn't mix. Sohn and screenwriters John Hoberg (American Housewife), Kat Likkel (also American Housewife) and Brenda Hsueh (Disjointed) set out to extinguish that belief, which is where Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie, Archive 81) comes in. When H2O streams into The Fireplace via a busted pipe, it brings in the water element, who is also a municipal inspector. To save the store, the explosive Ember teams up with the go-with-the-flow, freely emotional Wade to work out what's caused the leak — and, although she's initially reluctant about him and leaving Firetown, romance gushes, as does an appreciation of burning beyond her comfort zone.

As it lays its scene, Elemental also brings Pixar's 2022 highlight Turning Red to mind, which doesn't do the studio's new film many favours. That exuberant straight-to-streaming effort focused on a boyband-worshiping teen rather than a dutiful young woman who's a whiz at blowing glass (an advantage of being constantly and literally fiery). It honed in on its protagonist's relationship with her mother, rather than father-daughter bonds. But both movies are about struggling with balancing cultural traditions passed down through generations, and the strict expectations that can come with them, as kids try to become their own people and remain true to their own, heroes, dreams, desires and personalities. Sohn's film just combines those notions with an element-crossed lovers rom-com — Pixar's take on Moonstruck, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, The Big Sick and other multicultural romances.

With everything that Elemental endeavours to ape — which is clearly a lengthy list — this 27th Pixar feature trickles from a lesser stream. That the flick's four different types of elements are thinly sketched out and lean on simplistic cliches dampens its impact, too, all uncharacteristic moves for the usually deeply thoughtful Mouse House outfit, and never more glaring than with the Lumens. With the director also receiving a story credit, there's again no faulting Sohn and his scribes' intentions in exploring societal inequality, decrying racism, and conveying a statement about inclusion and diversity at viewers young and old. Still, the film is at its most shimmering emotionally and narratively when it gets specific rather than broad. The more kindling that it adds to Ember, the stronger it beams. The more that it relies upon its familiar tropes and plot components, the more it recedes.

Two parts of Elemental are perennially buoyant, however: the imagery and voice cast. Fire isn't easy to animate, let alone fire beings, but Ember is especially dazzling. She's always blazing, but those flames can grow and fade based on mood, be doused completely by water, get radiant in the dark and change hues depending on her surroundings — and, as a result, she's an expressive marvel. Also stunning: the world of Element City that's conjured up around her, as tinted with a dreamy palette and watercolour look, which its leads walk and talk through like they're in one of the Before movies. As they chat and swoon, and in general, Lewis matches her character's fire. Athie makes a suitably cruisy Wade, while Catherine O'Hara (Schitt's Creek) is an unsurprising delight as his mum Brook. And yet, Elemental also feels like Pixar is taking its titular term to heart in the worst way, making for rudimentary rather than particularly ravishing or resonant viewing.

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