Elemental (2024.14, Disappointing , Light )

Elemental is top-notch creative world building on top of a mundane story! (3*)

Elemental – Snapshot

Elemental is a really fun movie to watch because of the details of the worlds that the characters live in.  Unfortunately the story is dead-on-arrival.  Another disappointment from Pixar. (3*) 

Where to Watch:

Stream: Disney+

Rent/Buy: Prime/Google/YouTube/Fandango ($4) Apple ($6)

Elemental – The Oscar Buzz 

Oscar Nominations (1) / Oscar Wins (0) :

Animated Feature

Elemental is this year’s entry from Pixar/Disney Animation Studios.  Despite earlier successes like Coco, Soul, Inside Out, the Toy Story series, and Up, Pixar’s recent feature films have not been all that good.  Last year’s Turning Red was a disaster of a movie searching desperately to find an audience. The year before, Luca was, literally, a fish-out-of-water story that  also seemed to lack creativity.  While Pixar is famous for harnessing warehouses full of computers to power their computerized graphic worlds, it seems of late that they just can’t find a creative story to channel all that power.

The story and direction are centered around Peter Sohn, who, much like Ember in Elemental, is the child of Korean immigrants to New York City.  He started with Pixar more than two decades ago and worked his way through various roles in Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Wall-E, and Ratatouille.  His previous two movies as director are works I’ve not seen, or heard of, The Good Dinosaur and Partly Cloudy. His three story and screenplay co-writers (John Hobert, Kat Likkel, and Brenda Hsueh) are primarily from the TV world with two of them instrumental in the series My Name is Earl which I also have not seen. None of these four key people have any previous Oscar history, and, quite frankly, the movie feels more like a TV episode than a fully contained movie.

Thomas Newman wrote the musical score for Elemental and he has received 15 different Oscar nominations for movies ranging from WALL-E and Finding Nemo (both Pixar films) to Skyfall and 1917.  The music in Elemental is one of its high points.

Elemental – Related Movies

Soul, Toy Story 4, Coco, Finding Dory, Inside Out, Brave  (Much better Pixar films)

The Good Dinosaur, Partly Cloudy (Direction, Story/Screenplay)

My Name is Earl (TV series) (Story/Screenplay)

WALL-E, Finding Nemo, 1917, Skyfall (Musical Score)

Toy Story 4 (Cinematography)

Luca (Cinematography, Production Design)

Incredibles 2 (Editing)

Elemental – What Others Think

With some exceptions, critics generally panned Elemental.  With a combined critical score of just 66, which was pretty consistent across both of my critical ratings scales, the movie ranked 33rd out of all 38 films and clearly at the bottom of this year’s animated features.  Isaac Feldberg (RogerEbert) wrote “Elemental feels emblematic of the studio’s (Pixar’s) struggle to recapture its original magic, making a mess of its world-building in service of a conventional story that fails the talent of the animators involved.”  And later “The film feels under-developed rather than universal, a colorful missed opportunity.”  He was especially critical of its “unimaginative storytelling”.   Feldberg’s review seems to accurately summarize what most critics thought of Elemental. 

Most critics, but not all.  Amy Nicholson (New York Times) bucked the trend by giving the film a Critics Pick.  She writes that Elemental “Tucks a romantic comedy inside a high-concept premise.  It’s smoldering and splashy.”  And later notes that “The staggering design ambition balances out the plot’s affecting, relatable ordinariness.”  There, I think, Nicholson hits on both the key strengths and the critical weakness of this movie.

Where things get even more interesting are in reviewing audience reactions.  This is one of those films where the average viewer and the average critic are world’s apart.  Overall viewers placed Elemental pretty much in the middle of this year’s films as well as in the Animated Feature category.  But my average of two audience ratings may not be accurate because this film, more than all but four other films, shows large differences between the two audience rating scales.  My assessment of this difference is that the movie benefits greatly from seeing it in a movie theater over watching it on a screen at home.  The visual and sonic characteristics of this movie, in a theater setting,  likely overwhelm the mediocre storytelling and are more dominant in forming positive opinions.  So there you have it!

Elemental – Special Mention

The Four (or Five) Elements Elemental  is based on a world where there are four fundamental types of living entities – Fire, Water, Earth, and Air.  These four “elements” have been referred to by cultures across the globe and since some of the earliest recorded histories although there is no known direct connection between them.  The Greek philosopher Empedocles organized the four “roots” into a coherent theory in 450 BC.   Celts, and other pagan groups, associated each of the elements to the cardinal directions and yearly seasons. Indigenous Americans have a medicine wheel concept that incorporates the elements, the seasons and medicinal concepts.  Many cultures have added a fifth element to the traditional four, usually some kind of ether or void concept. Hindu thought articulated them in the sacred Vedas. The earliest Buddhist texts associate the four primary elements of solidity, fluidity, temperature, and mobility as characterized by the four elements, while Tibetan Buddhism adds the fifth one of something like space to build a cosmology of the physical and mental worlds.  Classical Chinese thought, as in Taoism and Confucianism, articulate five elements which form a cycle of interaction between the elements of wind, water, earth, wood, and fire that underlies all earthly experience.  Ancient African thought from Angola and Mali incorporate these same five elements in cosmologies that associate the elements, the seasons, and the cycle of life and with particular gods.  Clearly the four (or five) elements have been consistently common threads in human thought.

Of course modern science does not reduce matter to just four elements.  The modern periodic table of the elements categorizes atomic structures into at least 118 different configurations of electrons, protons, and neutrons.  But, curiously, on Earth, at least, science still identifies only four “states” of matter which correspond neatly to the four classical elements: solid (earth), liquid (water), gas (air), and plasma (fire, if you stretch your notion a bit).  You could also visualize fire as analogous to energy, although there are clearly multiple types of energy so the analogy can’t be stretched too far.   If you add the physical concept of empty space, or possibly dark matter/energy, you have the fifth element of aether, or void.  

The point isn’t that all of these notions of basic “elements” are exactly the same or identical, but rather that humanity has independently and across time and space created remarkably similar notions to describe their experience of reality.  The idea of personifying basic elements, as in Elemental, is an idea that should resonate cross-culturally.

Elemental – Michael’s Moments

So there is a great idea behind the movie Elemental.  But, alas, it is certainly not a great movie.  It seems like Pixar has, repeatedly, thought of an interesting idea and then failed to actually realize it in a story that can take root and grow.

Where Elemental succeeds is in the basic concept, of a world of four fundamental types of characters, and the attempts at building their worlds.  The most delightful part of watching this movie is to pay close attention to the backgrounds and the incredible details they have thought up to populate this world.  Each of the four kinds of characters – air, water, earth, and fire – have their own unique cultures.  The individual names are delightful: our main character is a fire person and her name is Ember, her father is Bernie, and her mother Cinder.  She develops a romance with a water person named Wade Ripple and his mother is Brook.  Ember has a tree-like friend named Clod and another tree person they encounter is named Fern.  Wade’s boss at city hall is an air person named Gale.  This is fun and creative stuff!

But the world-building doesn’t end with just names.  Bernie and Cinder run a store called The Fireplace where they sell not hotdogs, but hot logs.  And other fire people take their infants around town, not in baby carriages, but in mobile BBQ pits.  The air people play a game of blowing balls through hoops, called airball, that looks a lot like a Quidditch game from Harry Potter.  The wood people know they are mature when they grow a little flower in their armpit, and the Ripples main living room is a giant swimming pool (which poses a certain challenge to Ember, a fire person!). Although everyone seems to take the “subway” in Element City, long distance transportation varies according to your element with air people using airships which hilariously deflate when all the air people disembark.  This is one film where you will want to watch the credits because the sight gags continue right up to the copyright notice with “advertisements” for different, element-specific, products appearing on the margins.

In short, the imagination used to build this world is nothing short of genius and exhilaratingly fun.  And I suspect that it is exactly this kind of visual creativity, augmented by a stellar new-age soundtrack, that captivates families taking in a matinee at the movie theater, and explaining why one of my audience measurements was so favorable.  But viewed on a smaller screen, you have to pay a lot more attention to be overwhelmed by all these superb visual details.

And, unfortunately, you also get a bit underwhelmed by the story.  Sure, as Nicholson (the New York Times critic) this is a rom-com but it feels so much like one we’ve heard, and seen, many times before.  A guy and a girl meet, find some commonality, get to like each other, have a falling out, are forced by circumstance to come back together, and, in the end – well, you figure it out.  And as in so many movies, they are from opposite sides of the track and, of course, different ethnicities/races/elements (whatever you want to call it).  And there is even what has to be a first in the movie world, a cross-element kiss (oh wait, didn’t Kirk and Uhuru do that almost 60 years ago in a Star Trek episode?). There is also the immigrant story in this one, although that theme isn’t a whole lot different than Pixar’s Turning Red from last year!

There was so much potential in exploring what a truly inter-elemental society might look like that it is frustrating to actually see what Pixar ended up producing.  They took a really exciting idea and turned it into a safe, mundane, and totally inconsequential story that feels more like a sloppy TV sit-com episode than a real movie. 

So disappointing.  Watch Elemental, if you want, for the details and forget the storyline. (3*)

Receive a notification every time there is a new review or post.

Leave a Comment