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  • 3 out of 5 stars
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Photograph: Pixar

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

Pixar returns with a trippy interracial romance that plays like ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’ for kids

From a purely artistic perspective, the departure of Pixar’s disgraced CEO John Lasseter in 2018 has been a double-edged sword: on the one hand, no more Cars movies; on the other, a noticeable decline in the rest of the animation studio’s once-flawless output. The past five years have only one outright triumph, Turning Red, as well as the bold but overstuffed Soul, to show for a five-film slate. The rest? Slight to middling – and a far cry from the studio’s Lasseter-led golden run in the noughties.

The sheer ambition is still there, but the storytelling rigour – Lasseter’s great forte – is again missing in Elemental, the studio’s latest big-screen offering. (Happily, the heretical days of sending Pixar films straight to streaming seem over, at least for the time being.)

The setting is a vividly imagined metropolis called Element City, inhabited by cute, anthropomorphised versions of the four elements: Fire, Water, Air and Earth. Most migrants are welcomed here, except the Fire people. Their unfortunate tendency to incinerate most of the things they come into contact with has seen them shunned and consigned to the peripheral suburb of Firetown. 

Here, first-generation migrants Bernie and Cinder Lumen and their daughter Ember set up a convenience store called The Fireplace and guard the Blue Flame, a spiritual totem of their culture that Elemental never delves too deeply into. Enter city inspector Wade Ripple, a wobbly (in every sense) water element, to inspect the family’s suddenly flooded premises and forge a delicate bond with Ember.

On the surface, it all makes for a much more pointed metaphor for segregation and ghettoisation than you might expect in a family movie. Kudos to director Peter Sohn – a second generation Korean-American – and his screenwriters for embracing such knotty ideas, even some of them will be lost on younger audience members. 

The problem is that there’s not enough storytelling muscle here for the allusion to really land. The stakes, such as they are, revolve around some shonky plumbing and that old nailbiter: lapsed permits. Zootropolis, a Disney animation that felt more like a Pixar film than this one, did a better job building a colourful realm where naturally clashing characters believably coexisted. Here, the Earth and Air elements are lazily sidelined and there are enough inconsistencies in the established rules (why can Ember write on paper when she sets fire to everything else?) to upset physicists everywhere. 

The stakes, such as they are, revolve around that old nailbiter: lapsed permits

Still, there’s some fun action and the voice cast brings a lovely mellow energy to it all, especially Mamoudou Athie as the weepy, gentle Wade and Leah Lewis (The Half of It) as the passionate, quick-tempered Ember. The movie’s best scene has Wade’s family nervously welcoming Ember to their watery apartment, a delightful riff on Sidney Poitier and Katharine Houghton’s meet-the-parents date in 1967’s Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner.

It’s one reassuringly Pixar-like touch in a movie that, for all its kaleidoscopic design and candy-coloured world-building, could do with a few more of them.

In US theaters now. Out in UK cinemas Jul 7, and Australian cinemas Jun 15.

Phil de Semlyen
Written by
Phil de Semlyen

Cast and crew

  • Director:Peter Sohn
  • Screenwriter:Brenda Hsueh, Kat Likkel, John Hoberg
  • Cast:
    • Ronnie Del Carmen
    • Leah Lewis
    • Mamoudou Athie
    • Catherine O'Hara
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