Everyone has their favorite Pixar movie – mine is Cocoof Wall-E And Ratatouille very short seconds – and whichever title you prefer from the game-changing animation studio’s catalogue, almost each one feels unique. (The cars And Toy Story sequels aside, although even some of those were fresh and original).
But in recent years, Pixar, which Disney bought for more than $7 billion in 2006, has failed to deliver the goods as it used to. Soul was ambitious but played too much like a jazzy riff on it Inside out. Luke was nice in the Italian sun but also too light. Light year was an unnecessary spin-off of a great franchise that should have ended as a trilogy.
It comes down to
That brings us to Elementary. The studio is 27e feature, has, well, all the elements that make up a great Pixar movie: a high-concept pitch that can only be delivered through dazzling state-of-the-art computer animation; a serious overarching theme about ethnic strife and racial tolerance; humor for both children and adults, although this one is aimed more at the 10 and under set; a plot that hits the right beats at just the right time.
It’s all there – so much so Elementary may be Pixar’s first work that feels like it’s completely AI-generated. Not just the AI that calculates all the images, but literally an algorithm that puts together a perfect Pixar movie. The problem, of course, is that originality is largely absent here, as is the thematic risk-taking that movies like Wall-E (the planet is about to die!) or Inside out (Bing Bong dies!) or Coco (people die!).
In Elementary, Pixar’s usual ambitious leap into the unknown is more of a safe dip into calm waters – water is one of four elements that guide the story, though only two really count here – and much of it seems extremely familiar. That doesn’t mean it won’t be at least a modest summer hit when Disney releases it in mid-June, after a Cannes premiere on the closing night of the festival. But the wow factor is kind of lost at this point, and what’s left feels like just another Pixar movie.
It takes about a minute or two to realize that the movie, which was directed by Peter Sohn (The good dinosaur – a mid-level Pixar) and written by John Hoberg, Kat Likkel and Brenda Hsueh, is a giant, very expensive ($200 million to be exact) metaphor for immigration and exclusion. Sohn said the story was inspired by his own family’s experiences when Koreans arrived in New York, a place that has here turned into a dazzling megalopolis called Element City — basically the Big Apple populated by the likes of Earth, Wind, Fire, and Water , with the latter dominating the others.
An immigrant couple, Bernie Lumen (Ronnie Del Carmen) and his wife, Cinder (Shila Omni), arrive by boat in the urban equivalent of Ellis Island, having come all the way from their homeland of Fireland to give their family a new lease of life. daughter, Ember (Leah Lewis). Without much money or connections, and as members of the Fire minority, they end up in the working-class neighborhood of Fire Town, where Bernie opens a grocery store called Fireplace that caters to other Fire people like himself.
If you’ve already had enough of all those winking names and pretty easy jokes, there’s a lot more to come in a movie that strives to find humor in its parallel urban universe of walking conflagration, globs of H2O, floating cloud clouds and whatever. actually look like old tree stumps. (Earth definitely gets short shrift here with most of the characters coming across as dull as dirt. Or is that just another pun?)
A fast opening montage – the rigor of most Pixar movies since then Upwards — shows Ember growing up to loving parents in a community far from the city’s water-controlled power centers. Her father wants her to take over the family business, but by the time she’s in her twenties, Ember’s explosive tantrums reveal she may want something different out of life. When a city inspector, goofy and liquid Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie), unexpectedly walks through the store’s plumbing, it’s not exactly love at first sight, especially after he writes down quotes that would potentially shut down Fireplace.
But as Paula Abdul famously predicted, opposites attract, and so Ember and Wade start loving each other even when they can’t make physical contact because, well, you get the idea. The Pixar story algorithm takes over at that point, with the two facing all sorts of obstacles as they fall in love despite their inherent differences, forcing Ember to hide the relationship from a proud father who would rather she stay in Fire Town.
Water has always been a tricky substance for animators, and what Sohn and his team do with it, especially when Ember goes to visit the center of Elemental City with Wade, can be impressive to watch. The wide color palette encompasses a trillion shades of blue, turquoise and green that almost made this partially color blind critic feel attacked, and the whole setting looks like Shanghai’s Pudong district submerged in a giant aquarium. Another innovation involves characters whose faces and bodies are filled with constant internal movement, whether they’re swarming with flames or churning liquids.
However, that, and a few charmingly funny sequences – especially a visit that Ember and Wade pay to his overbearing bougie mother (Catherine O’Hara) – can’t make up for the film’s biggest flaw, which is that it feels utterly predictable. Maybe we’ve all seen too many Pixar movies by now, and if so Element was the studio’s very first release instead of just another, it would seem more surprising, more daring.
That said, the immigrant likeness Sohn and his army of animators have created feels both dignified and timely, especially at a time when America seems to be sliding into an xenophobia unseen since perhaps the 1920s. By far the most moving element in Element is the character of Bernie, a hard-working foreigner who goes to great lengths to support his family in the big city, breaking his back in his humble mini-supermarket while striving to preserve some of the traditions of his homeland.
His story proves to be more involved than an Ember and Wade romance that goes exactly where you think it will go, underscoring the many hardships, both personal and societal, faced by people of different races trying to stay together . Perhaps if Pixar had taken more risks with that storyline, they might have satisfied a smaller audience than such a project needs to be profitable, but they also might have delivered a movie that was on par with their best work. Instead, the elements all fit perfectly into place – so much so that water eventually puts out the fire and we’re left with little impression.
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