What has fallen flat at Pixar? This is the innovative animation studio that pushed all before it in the first decade of this millennium, that invented a way of turning the plastic finish of digital animation to its advantage in the towering Toy Story, that was prepared to start a film with a 20-minute scene with no dialogue in Wall-E – and revealed that kids didn’t care – and that would make an adventure film with a hero aged 78 years young in UP!. Kids didn’t care about that either, as it turned out, because Carl Fredricksen was a grumpy-gramps adventurer who also didn’t care what others thought of him. Pixar always had something new up its collective artistic sleeve. And yet here they are, coming out with a film as dull-witted and syrupy as Elemental.
The title suggests the kids will get a head start on the periodic table, which was apparently director Peter Sohn’s first idea, but no. The elements in Elemental, which closed the Cannes Film Festival this evening, are now the Ancient Greek ones: fire, water, air and earth. Element City, a candy-colored version of New York, is a watery city full of canals, drains and barrages; its citizens include earth people with flowers in their armpits and air people who billow like clouds. Its dominant liquid citizens look like balloons, moving humanoids made of water who can, when under pressure, dissolve into their natural element and then pop up in drainpipes, fully reconstituted, which is how Wade Ripple, city inspector of waterworks, arrives in the shop run by an elderly couple of fire people and meets Ember, their sparky daughter.
Fire people are dangerous goods. Water people, afraid of being turned into steam, ban them from public buildings. Nasty ones regularly tell them to get back where they came from, meaning Fireland. Ember’s family are immigrants who came to Element City from Fireland after storms laid waste to their hometown. “It was the only way to create a better life… it was the last time your father saw his family,” Ember’s mother says, her eyes squeezed tight even though her cindery eyes can’t cry.
The barely-tolerated fire people therefore stick with their own. They live across the river from the city and avoid taking trains where they might inadvertently turn the earth people’s leafy hair to ash or get sloshed with water from the overhead aqueducts. “The city isn’t made with fire people in mind,” says Ember as she sets out on a delivery run for her dad’s shop, which sells the kind of chili balls fire people like to eat. “It would take an act of God to get me over that bridge… everything I need is here.” That is until she meets Wade, a transparent sausage of wet love who cries at almost anything and really fancies Ember, even if he can’t touch her.
Wade takes her to the city, where they go to see the view from a very tall building — uh-huh, check the Empire State — and then go to the movies. Tide and Prejudice is showing. There is a sprinkling of these visual jokes, the customary game of Spotto provided for guardians sitting through family films; you can rely on Pixar’s rooms full of geniuses to come up with myriad quirky details. Let’s not shortchange it. There are also some wild explosions, particularly when Ember loses her temper. There are sensational floods and a colorfully conceived football match between aggressive clouds. There just isn’t a line or a situation that would make you laugh out loud. Not even if you were four.
Nobody knows anything, as William Goldman said. It is true that children were happy to watch a film about a tin box’s friendship with a steering wheel in Wall-E, which must have seemed unlikely before it happened. Even so, I am confident they will find the twee romance between the mismatched Ember and Wade simply icky. Because it IS icky.
Elemental, a film that starts out with a clever concept and proceeds to build a world full of invention – exactly what we expect from Pixar – then uses that world as a backdrop for a protracted will they-won’t they flirtation that could have been ripped from the script of a telenovela. I know kids are wise to the ways of the world these days, but that’s the kind of thing that makes them simply embarrassed to be alive, especially when it culminates in a big, gloopy fire-and-water kiss and their parents are in the room.
There are bits that are just plain dull. I wonder if the young audience will seize the proffered opportunity to learn more about the role of water pressure in a canal system, which certainly lost me. Perhaps the romance is aimed at girls, while the engineering snippets are a sop offered to the boys? That kind of gender stereotyping is supposed to have gone out with the Ark, but we know it still works and, after all, there are pesky (and currently difficult) market realities to consider.
Then there are the oft-repeated pieties about hard-working immigrants and moments when we see how nasty racists are, signaling a worthy message of inclusivity with all the subtlety of a pipe bursting under the sink. Smug moralizing is an enduring element of family entertainment, admittedly. Once again, kids won’t care, but seeing the genuinely wrenching experience of refugees spun into yet more sugar glazing, dolloped on top of the core romance, may prove too much for even the most sympathetically woke adults. Elemental could, in fact, simply have been called Sentimental. It would have saved time.