Sunday, September 24, 2023

Elemental (+ Carl's Date)

Within the last year or so, there have been fewer movies we’ve been willing to see in a theater, mainly due to having some varying degree of interest that’s not high enough to justify paying higher ticket and refreshment prices for a group of multiple people. Pixar’s Elemental is one such film, with it being a combination of the advertising not grabbing my attention enough and because of how underwhelming much of Pixar’s recent output has been. Not even the included Up short provided enough of an incentive, and so we opted to wait until it was recently added to Disney+ before considering it. On watching it the same week it was added, it turned out to be better than the trailers made it out to be, but still not one of their stronger films.

From a young age, a fire element named Ember (Leah Lewis) has been raised to one day take over her father’s shop in Fire Town, but has trouble controlling her temper. One day when she’s put in charge of the shop, Ember investigates a noise coming from the pipes in the basement, during which a water element named Wade (Mamoudou Athie) bursts out in an unusual leak. Wade turns out to be a building inspector, with Ember giving chase to stop him from submitting his findings, but doesn’t convince him otherwise in time. Wade and Ember end up talking to Wade’s employer, an air element named Gale (Wendi McLendon-Covey), at a sports match and convince her to get the charges reversed, with the caveat that they have a few days to track down the source of the leak and help fix it.

On the outset, the setup for this film is very similar to Disney’s 2016 Academy Award winner Zootopia, but not nearly as interesting. To clarify, while the amount of worldbuilding presented in Zootopia is enough to get you intrigued by the world and make you want to see more while still contributing to the plot, the lack of worldbuilding in Elemental is more of a detriment since it deals with the more abstract concept of elements rather than the more grounded subject of land mammals. As such, while we do get an idea of how the fire and water sections of Element City operate, the same cannot really be said about the air and earth elements, especially the latter to the point where minor earth character Clod feels superfluous outside of representation, plus the oddly selective fire interactions are never properly addressed onscreen.


Left: Clod (Mason Wertheimer), the most important character in the film
(at least according to Pixar's marketing department).

Of note, this is also the latest in Disney and Pixar’s “no villain” era of animated films, something that has only worked a handful of times. Arguably, Elemental is one such film where it actually works without a main antagonist as the romance plot takes the forefront, though the trailers made it look more generic than it actually is and without any hint that it’s also an immigrant story on the side of Ember’s parents. That said, partly due to the aforementioned worldbuilding hurdles, much of the plot felt a bit underwhelming and a little predictable, but admittedly it did manage to tug at my emotional heartstrings towards the end. The performances of Leah Lewis and Mamoudou Athie help carry much of the plot and sell the budding romance between the two leads.

If there’s one thing that deserves praise, however, it’s the animation, with Pixar managing to effectively place more stylized characters against a more highly realistic backdrop, as well as make use of some interesting camera work to help set the scene. The element effects are particularly impressive, especially the interactions of water and fire and the animations of glass and glass blowing. While this is an impressive showcase of Pixar’s animation software, considering how Sony and DreamWorks’ animation departments have been making great strides in CG as of late, it would be interesting to see what Pixar would be capable of in a more highly stylized space.


In the theater, Elemental was also packaged with and preceded by a new short based on Pixar’s 2009 feature Up, named “Carl’s Date.” This is also the sixth and last of the shorts produced for the series Dug Days on Disney+ that takes place after the film proper and focuses on Dug’s new life living with Carl Fredrickson. “Carl’s Date” also puts focus on Carl (Ed Asner) as he fusses over an impending first date with another woman, while Dug (Bob Peterson) tries to calm him down. While the Dug Days series isn’t a necessary watch for fans of the original film, it is well worth it and “Carl’s Date” justifies its existence. The late Ed Asner clearly put his all into one of his final performances in this short, and with his passing ensuring the end of the Up franchise, this short feels like the perfect send-off to the IP and a very fitting conclusion to Carl’s character.

Going in with low expectations, Elemental is better than it seems, but is bogged down by the execution of its core premise and setting, making it one of Pixar’s weaker films overall. That said, the ending is perhaps its strongest point behind the animation, making it worth considering a watch at least for those two points. If nothing else, "Carl's Date" is the better half of the package and a must-see for Up fans.

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