​'Elemental' Signals the End of Pixar's Golden Age

Directed by Peter Sohn

Starring Leah Lewis, Mamoudou Athie, Ronnie Del Carmen, Shila Ommi, Wendi Mclendon-Covey, Catherine O'Hara, Mason Wertheimer, Ronobir Lahiri, Wilma Bonet, Joe Pera

Photo courtesy of Disney/Pixar

BY Rachel HoPublished Jun 15, 2023

It's time to accept that the Golden Age of Pixar, where Monsters Inc., The Incredibles and Ratatouille were common occurrences, is well and truly over. Although films like Soul gave hope that the animation house was still a juggernaut to be reckoned with, it's become clear that Pixar is now simply adequate. 

Elemental is the latest film from the giant desk lamp studio and it imagines a colourful world where the four elements (earth, water, air and fire) are personified into distinctive groups. The history of Element City begins with water people as the first settlers, followed by earth and air. When fire people finally arrive, they're pushed to the less desirable neighbourhoods where their own vibrant community develops. 

The film follows Ember (voiced by Leah Lewis), a young fire woman born and raised in Element City after her parents moved there seeking a better future for themselves and their kin. Ember's father owns a fire store specializing in foods and other items from the old country, and, as he ages, Ember hopes to take over the store soon. A competent worker, Ember's anger is the only thing standing in the way of her father officially passing the torch onto her.

After one of Ember's outbursts causes the store's pipes to burst, a young water guy named Wade (Mamoudou Athie), who happens to be a city inspector, gets sucked into their basement. With tears in his eyes, Wade informs Ember that he's going to have to write up the store for variations infractions, which will most likely result in permanent closure. This little meet cute, of course, leads to a blossoming relationship between Ember and Wade.

Notwithstanding my initial, admittedly sour, comments about the current state of Pixar, a shining constant throughout all of their films is the stunning animation. The realization of the four elements into living, breathing, tangible creatures is striking. The flaming movements and glowing light of the fire people in particular is incredibly imaginative, filling the screen with warmth and dynamism. As a whole, the kaleidoscopic imagery of Elemental is a refreshing reprieve from the dark cinematography so common in live-action films.

Ironically, Elemental's animation is also the very thing that puts me at odds with the film's story. The use of the water and fire people as a teachable lesson for young kids to understand the plight of immigrant families, and the issues faced by mixed-race couples, is purposely superficial. But where the storytelling is decidedly youthful, the animation seems more geared towards adults. Combining the more "mature" animation styling of an Inside Out and Soul with a narrative suitable for YTV's Treehouse creates a confusing film that bounces between two camps rather than having its feet steadfast in one. 

What made Pixar so exciting was the studio's ability to produce films that tapped into the possibilities of animation while grounding them with stories that embedded themselves into our hearts and souls. Elemental does the former very well, but comes up short with the latter. It's a film that won't leave a lasting imprint — but, undoubtedly, it will leave audiences in a happy state of mind. And maybe this worthwhile service is what we should expect from Pixar now on.

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