When I sat down for Pixar’s Elemental, I can’t say I didn’t have a preconceived notion of what it was going to be. The trailers and marketing materials seemed to lay bare what was a flat, paint by numbers romcom about opposites attracting expressed through the hammy and obvious metaphor of basic elements. “Wait, you’re telling me they’re fire and water? Oh boy, that certainly sounds like a mismatched pair!”
Echoes of this premise and ones like it have been ever present in Pixar’s past works, and this appeared to be the same rag. If anything, it’s almost a concept someone might dream up in an attempt to satirize or distill Pixar’s formula. You know, a fantastical world populated by humanoid something-or-others, destined to experience anything from puberty to learning the meaning of friendship, love, etc, for roughly two hours at a time. Riveting stuff.
However, this bias was almost entirely proven wrong right from the film’s opening few minutes. I quickly learned that it was not really so much an awkward love story, so much as it was a series of strange vignettes strung together via that same love story. Vignettes depicting staunch, commonplace, inner city racism played baldly with no real room for interpretation or analog outside of being exactly what it is: 2004’s Crash diluted for Disney adults.
It’s important to be clear after writing a sentence that obscure and loaded, that neither Crash, nor Elemental, are categorically good movies. In fact, on a functional & emotional level, they’re both pretty bad. Both are ill-conceived, profoundly stupid, and have the word “subtlety” nowhere in their cinematic vocabulary. However, at the very least, it’s so purely dumbfounding to see a Pixar animated children’s film share a lot of those same opaque depictions of racial strife in the least metaphorical terms possible. So much so that it somehow tracks as endearing. It barely feels real. It unintentionally had more in common with Sausage Party’s hyperbolic crassness than it did something like Zootopia.
The most unpredictable aspect of this all being, it all comes off as laugh out loud hilarious in its execution and blatant unawareness of its own trite nature. It somehow thinks it’s being brave in its convictions, when in reality it’s more or less showing you a 200 million dollar Cum Town bit brought to life. It’s a marvel, and I cackled like a goddamn hyena front to back.
Allow me to explain a little further:
The story sees Ember, a young fire woman, working daily to impress her father, Bernie, in order to take over the family convenience store, all being complicated by a tryst with a water person, Wade. However, before we get to this, we’re shown the family’s origin of arriving in Element City, in which Bernie and his wife literally get the full Ellis Island treatment. They give their names in some unpronounceable foreign language, and are given anglicized names based on their ethnic features, Bernie & Cinder. They then walk the streets, having slurs hurled at them by strangers, looking for a place to rent. Being rejected by every landlord they come into contact with, until they’re forced into an abandoned property in a ghetto. Not only that, but when we jump ahead to the present day, these characters have become embittered and racist themselves. It’s cyclical, just like real life! And it only gets more bat shit from there.
This movie has in-universe slurs (cloud puff, fire ball, sparky, etc). It has established racial stereotypes. It has fucking gentrification. It even has every breed of racist you could think of. Some are fetishistic bleeding hearts, some are outright hate mongers. It’s even often just casual. When we meet Wade for the first time, it’s as he’s performing a code inspection of Ember’s bodega. Sobbing uncontrollably as he writes fine after fine. Lamenting that he has to shut down the dream of this poor immigrant family all while he actively dismantles it. Later on, when we meet his family. The model picture of upper class white liberals. They live in a condo, we meet the gay cousin and her partner, the uncle that sells paintings, etc. They’re all fascinated with Wade’s new ethnic squeeze (“I have to say, you speak so well & clear!”).
If this was present in anything else, it would be eye rolling — but somehow, being illustrated via amorphous cartoons just amplifies its own absurdity. We couldn’t get away with being this hack with actual actors, so let’s do it here. For kids!
Shy of whipping out a laser pointer and individually highlighting every crudity contained within, the summation of them all point to the most confounding section in the whole symphony. Not a lick of it seems intentional. At least in the sense the movie seemed to be grasping for.
For clarity, I don’t think you could write, animate, and direct something like this without having some intention. It’s evident that the film seems to think it’s making some profound, grand stand. Displaying the realities of racism to a new generation, hoping to glean these lessons into their playgrounds and lives. Instead, things landed firmly at absurdist comedy. Borderline satire. The lion’s share feels like it was adapted from a South Park Pixar parody and sterilized to be suitable for children. It’s like the Good Dinosaur guy was getting revenge or something.
Y’know what? Fuck it. I hope they meant it this way. Why stop here? I want a dozen more of these dealing with every race-fuelled controversy of the last 100 years, all expressed solely via Avatar: The Last Airbender style hammy sight gags. I want the Rodney King Riots but with guys made outta rocks on the roofs of small businesses with rifles. I want Water Palestine and Fire Israel blowing up the Elemental Gaza Strip. I want Air Kanye West to go on TV with Earth Mike Myers and say “George W Bush doesn’t care about cloud people,” and then they cut away to Bush reacting and he’s a literal bush. Do a holocaust period drama where Hitler’s like, mustard gas or something I don’t know. We’ve struck a rich, rich vein of dumb horse shit here and it would be a waste not to apply it accordingly.
In conclusion, go see Elemental as it squeaks out of cinemas, but under no circumstance should you pay for it. Assuming you’ve already done your Barbenheimer trip, throw a couple bucks to Past Lives or No Hard Feelings or something; theater hop for a little bit. If anything, just to prove to yourself I didn’t make all this shit up. You won’t regret it.