Elemental (2023) – Film review by Andrea Carnevali

Elemental ⭐️⭐️⭐️

Ember and Wade live in a city where fire, water, land and air residents all live together. Elemental is out in cinemas now.

The fact that I waited more than a week to watch Elemental at my local Chiswick Cinema might not seem particularly interesting for the average person reading this, but if you know me well and you know not just what a film geek I am, not just about my deep love for animation, but also for everything that’s Pixar-related, then the fact that I wasn’t there on day one suddenly becomes much more relevant.

I’ve been a massive fan of Pixar Animation ever since I can remember.

There was a time when, after a string of masterpieces one after the other, the likes of Toy Story, Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Wall-E, Up, Inside Out, (A lot of which are not just some of the best animated films of the last 30 years, but actually some of my favourite films too), I really believed Pixar could do no wrong. And I wasn’t the only one.

And yet, very little about this latest Elemental, seemed to appeal to me, beyond the Pixar brand.

The trailer made it look like a rather generic photocopy of past products: a cross between Zootopia and Inside Out, and even though I liked both of those films, this one didn’t feel as fresh, or clever or fun as any of those. In fact, let me tell you now it wasn’t fresh, clever or very funny to be honest… But at the same time it wasn’t the car-crash I was fearing either.

Unfortunately, news from the States about its box office didn’t look promising either. This was apparently the worst opening in the company’s history, with less than $30 million, on its opening weekend. Just to put it all into context, Onward, the previous lowest earner at the box office, back in March 2020, had bagged $46 million in a weekend (that is adjusted for inflation) and that was also the year of Covid.

I understand the film is currently picking up a little bit, showing slightly longer legs than previously thought, but the numbers are still not overwhelming for a film of this calibre.

After three decades and 27 films, is Pixar beginning to lose its touch?

Is Disney+ killing the cinema experience? You have no idea how many people I hear saying “I’ll wait until it comes to streaming”. A sad state of affairs for cinema lover like me.

But I’m digressing. Back to Elemental.

Director Peter Sohn was obviously inspired both by his childhood, his Korean immigrant parents and his marriage to someone outside the Korean culture in depicting a story which is clearly a metaphor for immigrants in a foreign land, culture clashes and racial prejudice.

But the plot also centres around a sort of love story, mixed with the story of somebody who needs to find her own path in life and even some weird subplot about civic plumbing issues, which I’m sure will go well over the heads of most kids (what silly idea, really!!).

So yes, there is a lot going on and that’s even before I mention all the elements, which in theory should be the thing that makes this film unique. After all it’s called Elemental.

And so, Air, Earth, Water and Fire people, all live in a sort of metropolis side by side, even though we are repeatedly told that elements shouldn’t really mix with one another. But wait, they wear clothes too, and live in wooden house (don’t they burn… or rot?) and touch papers, and all of a sudden, we even learn (spoiler alert…) that fire and water can actually touch each other and hug for some unexplainable reason, making the heads to the poor kids watching this spin even more.

What are they supposed to take from this? Not really sure. The fact that we are actually watching “elements” becomes more and more redundant, just like the many flashbacks, backstory and plot strands, forcefully crowbarred in left, right and centre.

On the way out of the cinema, my son had more questions than usual. So many ‘why’ and ‘what’, which speaks volume about how confusing the messages are. Whatever happened to good old fairy tales, with linear and clear storytelling, a baddy to hate and adventures to be excited about?

Is Pixar become a victim of its own success? In trying to be innovative, clever, different and inclusive (all very noble causes of course), are they actually losing the plot and forgetting the magic and inspired fun that made some of those other previous films so perfect?

Probably a little bit of that is true… but not completely.

Don’t get me wrong, this is still a perfectly watchable film. It means well and I’m probably being over-critical, just because I expect so much from these films.

Elemental is really not a bad film for families and kids by all means, it’s just a very non-specific one and not very memorable one either and beyond the potentially original idea. It tries too hard be so many different things, that in the end, the overall impact and message get diluted and it becomes too generic, betraying the high-concept of its premise.

There are still glimpses of wonder, warmth, beauty, and of course, being Pixar, some heartfelt moments, but they are all too brief and too far in between in, just like the laughs.

What a pity.

Carl’s Date ⭐️⭐️

I should also spend a few words about the little short, Carl’s Date, which preceded the main feature. A sort of mini-sequel to UP which finds our beloved old man from the first film, still voiced by legend Ed Asner (who sadly died just a few days before he could watch the finished short), ready to out on a date again.

Yes you heard me right. The man, who’s probably 90 and who spent the whole original film trying to deal with his grief, after a life spent with his now departed wife, is now ready to date again!

Somebody at Pixar actually thought it would be a good idea to take essentially a big dump on one of the most beautiful sequences ever committed to the silver screen in the original Up (that amazing montage at the start of the film during which, in just a few minutes, we witness the most heart-breaking love story since Romeo and Juliet) and pretty much destroying everything that the previous film had done, and ruining the sweet old memories of the characters we loved.

I’m beside myself.

On top of that, the short is unfunny, it over-estimates how much it can stretch the joke of a talking dog, it’s badly paced (it’s a short yet and it manages to be a bit boring) and overall it’s a really uninspired piece. Even the animation is unremarkable.

It just about half redeems itself at the very end, re-hashing Michael Giacchino’s beautiful score for a quick moment, which obviously mostly serves to remind us, how beautiful the original film was and what a big mistake this one is.

If the purpose was to inspire me to watch the new episodes of the Disney+ series Dug Days, it’s just done the opposite.

Elemental and Carl’s Date are out in cinemas now, including Chiswick Cinema.

Andrea Carnevali is a Bafta winning film maker who lives in Chiswick, and a co-creator of the Chiswick In Film festival.