.Burn, Baby, Burn

Pixar’s Elemental is not so hot

Ahh, Prozac. Sorry… Pixar! Pixar, America’s number-one remedy for depression. Tastes like low-cal, sugarless, harmless candy; works like a miracle. No matter how dire the world situation can get, Pixar unfailingly strives to make it alright. 

Case in point: Elemental, the latest animated summer vacation entertainment from Pixar Animation Studios and its big daddy, Walt Disney Studios—the industry combination behemoth that gave the world Encanto, Soul, Toy Story 4, Moana and oodles of other treats. The list of problems that those four recent animated movies has addressed—to name only a few examples of Disney/Pixar’s prodigious output—is a pop-cultural, semi-therapeutic catalog of all-too-human dilemmas and their possible solutions. 

For instance, Encanto is the sweet tale of a magical-but-overlooked peasant family from the boondocks of Colombia. Soul bravely tries to sum up the Black experience of a jazz pianist, with the help of voice talents Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey. Toy Story 4, the most recent offspring of Pixar’s cherished cash cow about toys who are more perceptive and humane than their human owners, trods the same lucrative path as the 1995 original. Moana demonstrates that even in the paradise of ancient Polynesia, a society needs a female touch to reach its goals. 

In all cases, the solution to the problem is right under everybody’s noses—the only thing they need to do is stop, look around and listen to other voices just a little bit.

Elemental—directed by Peter Sohn from a screenplay by John Hoberg, Kat Likkel and Brenda Hsueh, adapted from the story they wrote with Sohn—gets down to basics in a hurry. 

Ember Lumen (played by the voice of Leah Lewis) is the dutiful but hot-tempered (hah!) daughter of a family of recent immigrants to Element City, and the family has quite a job in front of it. The Lumens are Fire people, meaning they’re made of combustible materials and live their lives on fire, coughing up smoke and emotionally smoldering. The family’s little shop in the city’s Firetown ethnic enclave sells things like briquettes and spicy-hot potato chips. 

Ember’s old-school, old-country father Bernie (voice of Ronnie Del Carmen) speaks pidgin English with an accent. Although Ember conscientiously helps mind the shop,we can see she’s ambitious to face greater challenges in the larger community. 

One day she meets Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie), who happens to be a Water being, evidently the dominant group in town. Wade’s personality is, um, liquid, and he and his large family cry a lot, gushing torrents of wet tears. So naturally, the same way fire and water don’t mix, these two characters would seem to be diametrically opposed. 

Wade is a city building inspector, which spells trouble for the Lumens’ ramshackle shop. Despite his overtures, Ember takes a long time to (arrghhh) warm up to him. But it’s easy to recognize they’re doomed to fall in love with each other. (Give the relationship about one year before it burns itself out. Or waters down its charm.) Viewers don’t learn too much about the Wind or Earth folks in Element City—have to wait for the sequel.

Before anyone can mentally form the words West Side Story, the tale briskly flows, or burns, to its predestined end—exactly where even the tiniest member of the audience can see that it’s heading. Apart from its impressive array of blue-chip artwork and one or two forgettable songs, Elemental is just another multi-culti allegory about cross-cultural romance versus tribal loyalty, a civics lesson, didactic to a fault. Not too wised-up, pretty basic, flamingly (ouch!) utilitarian. But also kind of mild, corny fun.

Kids are used to being preached to, especially in Pixar/Disney movies, so the heavy-handedness will probably roll right off their backs. As for their movie-going companions, essentially anybody over 12, try to take Elemental with an open mind. It could be much, much worse.

In theaters

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