Monday, June 12, 2023

Elemental has one of Pixar's best scores...and one of the studios worst scripts

In the book The Art of Up, one of the artists involved in that 2009 Pixar movie revealed that the design aesthetic of the entire movie was built on a classic quote from Walt Disney that basically emphasized the importance of getting people emotionally invested in your stylized characters right from the get-go. With that investment, your story can go anywhere and your visuals can look like anything. Classic titles from the various directors at Pixar Animation Studios have often done a great job of following this advice. Just look at Finding Nemo, which opens with a depiction of parental trauma that immediately gets you engrossed in the plight of a clownfish. Ditto the earliest scenes of WALL-E, which emphasize the everyday routine and quiet loneliness of that film's titular robot. Even as late as last year's Turning Red, one can see the clever ways (like depicting childhood memories through faded Polaroid photographs) this studio's works immediately get audiences to see animated figures as real people worth watching for two hours.

Unfortunately, Elemental fails to live up to this element and other notable aspects of earlier Pixar motion pictures. Even worse, the flaws of Elemental aren't around solely when one compares it to Coco or Ratatouille. If there were no other Pixar features in existence, Elemental would still resonate as a strangely unimaginative and clumsily-written exercise. 

In the fictional world of Element City, where Elemental takes place, personifications of elements like air, Earth, water, and fire all live out their days. In this domain, fire appears to be the most marginalized of the city's communities, which explains why individuals in this population mostly reside in Fire Town. Among those fire souls just trying to exist is Ember Lumen (Leah Lewis), who runs a shop in Fire Town with her immigrant parents Bernie (Ronnie del Carmen) and Cinder (Shila Ommi). Ember is preparing to take over the shop from her father, though her extreme temper is making the prospect of her inheriting this location a daunting one. 

Further problems emerge when water being Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie) enters her life. A sensitive guy prone to crying, Wade, whose a city inspector conscious of structural flaws in Bernie's store, initially seems like just another obstacle in Ember's life. However, sparks begin to fly between these two mismatched elements, which is bound to create further issues for the film's fiery protagonist. 

Elemental has many grand ambitions. Chiefly, it wants to be a romantic comedy that would make Nora Ephron proud. It also wants to function as an exploration of the experiences of being the child of first-generation immigrants. Other parts of the movie evoke everything from Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? to classic disaster films. There's totally a way to make all those disparate creative influences work in harmony together. However, director Peter Sohn and screenwriters John Hoberg, Kat Likkel, and Brenda Hsueh never thread these wildly varying aspirations into a cohesive whole. The problem here is less that Elemental's script comes off as tonally erratic and more that its various pieces feel strangely half-hearted. Too much of the movie goes through the motions, content to settle for obvious puns and dialogue in lieu of using familiar cinema as a springboard to something new.

For instance, it's never a good thing when your movie's clever "element" puns (i.e. "get off your ash") evoke similarly unfunny gags from the Cars movies. That's not the kind of comedic legacy you want to remind viewers of. Meanwhile, the big romantic sequences rarely show much ingenuity or sweetness that doesn't feel cribbed from other features. There are some cute idiosyncratic flourishes in these lovey-dovey stretches, like Ember joyfully changing colors as she jumps on various crystals, but mostly, the banter and evolving relationship between our two leads isn't very unique. Elemental rarely offends in the material it offers up, but it's shocking how a movie that wants to be so many different things typically settles for rote narrative choices.

The lack of imagination is especially apparent in the most egregious flaw of Elemental: its animation. Too often, Sohn and company seem too self-conscious to embrace the possibilities of animation as a visual medium. The big scenes involving Ember traveling outside of Fire Town concern a sport that functions as a cloud equivalent to basketball and Wade taking her to a bureaucrat's office. These are scenes that could've been filmed in live-action with human performers quite easily! They don't gain much from being either animated or involving living embodiments of elements. Elemental clearly wants to be taken "seriously", to be seen as something with weighty ideas on its mind. However, its buttoned-up nature leads to an uninspired visual palette. Just as you've seen its story beats before, so too have audiences seen Elemental's juxtaposition of realistic backgrounds with cartoony characters in tons of other Pixar titles. 

Even with these shortcomings, though, Elemental is far from a waste of a movie. If there's any major saving grace to the proceedings, it's Thomas Newman's score. While so many gags and plot elements in Elemental feel dreadfully familiar, Newman's compositions come off as totally unique in the world of Western animated cinema scores. An early largely dialogue-free chase scene involving Ember and Wade that leans heavily on Newman's propulsive score is a standout sequence here simply because it allows you to appreciate all the finer musical intricacies this musician is delivering. Even with three other Pixar scores under his belt, Newman's Elemental works stand totally on their own as something impressive.

Certain voice actors also fare decently at giving lively performances, with Pixar veteran Ronnie del Carmen (previously a co-director on Inside Out) providing especially notable work in imbuing Bernie's line deliveries with a complicated live-in aura. Unfortunately, many of the voice actors would be better served by a much livelier screenplay. Mamoudou Athie's work as Wade is especially undercut by the writing, with this talented actor never getting much to do beyond sobbing loudly and doing a Jack McBrayer impression in his vocals. Wade, like so much of the world of Elemental, just never fully comes alive. It's a pity, because the best Pixar movies, including ones that Sohn worked on, lived up to that quote from The Art of Up that stressed the importance of making ludicrous characters seem real. Unfortunately, Elemental is too subdued and generic to bring palpable life to its sizzling and moist creations.

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