ELEMENTAL or How Pixar Currently Makes Concepts Not Stories (Pixar 48)

I am sure the folks at Pixar could probably care less what a former super-fan  and fledgling film critic thinks of their recent films but on the off chance that someone reading is interested I have something to say. For years what made Pixar special was not only the incredible animation but the tightly crafted emotional stories they told. They took a concept of toys coming to life or monsters being real and crafted a story around this idea with emotion and some of the most memorable characters in the history of film.

Unfortunately in the last 10 years the studio has abandoned their storytelling finesse in favor of artistic visions and overall concepts. While in theory I love the idea of individual artistic visions and cultures being showcased this only makes a lasting impression if the stories and characters around these concepts are memorable and well told. Sadly this has not been the case. I don’t know if they are too scared of disrupting a creator’s vision or don’t want to appear culturally insensitive but clearly the tough cuts and storybuilding process has been abandoned in favor of messy scripts that pitch cultures and values without the narrative to back them up.

For example, last year’s Turning Red had a compelling concept of a girl turning into a panda while experiencing puberty but it was executed with a muddled metaphor that was more about catch-phrases than an effective earned character journey for our protagonist. The same thing goes for Soul where a compelling world of the after-life and a man facing a mid-life crisis is left to flail about as our protagonist baffling becomes a cat for a long section. The recent Lightyear was all concept and a bizarre concept at that, which practically nobody wanted or frankly understood (if you have to make up whole videos explaining the idea behind your franchise film maybe it’s not a great idea to begin with?) Regardless, the story they gave for whatever Buzz that was is weak at best.

Honestly the only recent Pixar film that has a clean well-executed story is Luca. They have the artistic vision of director Enrico Casarosa but it is married with a simple and sweet story of friendship  that largely works.

Now we have their latest film Elemental and is perhaps their greatest example of concept over story. As a result, I left underwhelmed and frankly bored. There are things to enjoy, particularly the stunning animation, but the story is just not compelling nor are the characters.

The concept for this film is a city of elements where earth, water, fire and air all exist as sentient beings that interact with each other. It’s never really explained what makes something a walking creature verses the land used to build the city (in this world are there talking trees and actual trees as separate entities? Are there normal clouds and talking clouds?) None of that matters. We are presented with a fire person named Ember and a water person named Wade and asked the question can they fall in love?

Again this is a concept that could be compelling. Anything can be good with good writing. Unfortunately what we are presented with is long sections where they try to change permits and fiddle with the zoning of Ember’s parents store.

I also didn’t think either Wade or Ember were very well written characters. Ember has a temper but it’s kind of portrayed in a positive way as if she is a passionate person who needs to express her soul. It’s similar to Mei needing to unleash her panda in Turning Red but ambition and enthusiasm is different than anger and rage.

Wade on the other hand seems completely influenced by other people in terms of what he wants and desires out of life. I was never really sure why he is attracted to Ember. She’s not particularly nice to him and we are never given any reasons but a vague notion of he see’s the real her. What?

The immigrant story in Elemental is also a good concept with Ember’s parents being rejected by the city so they start their own store that becomes a landmark in the town. It’s weird because Ember seems perfectly happy to be running her parents store at the beginning of the film, yet she has this random rage dealing with customers, and then in the middle of the movie she decides she hates the idea of running the store and hates her parents for making her do it. No wonder they are confused! I was confused.

This is what I’m saying- the concept is there, the narrative around that concept is muddled and weak. These problems make it harder to connect with the characters and us as viewers filling in the blanks in the story in order for it to make sense and flow smoothly. We shouldn’t have to do such heavy lifting in our films. We shouldn’t leave the theater saying “I see what they were trying to do…”

In the end, despite loving the 2D inspired animation and world-building I left Elemental thinking “why was so much of that about permits and why do the fire people have so many pipes to begin with? Why do they need water in their store at all?” I shouldn’t be thinking such questions but when the narrative isn’t compelling that’s where the mind goes. It’s not just enough to make a romance- you have to give reasons why the characters are attracted to each other and what makes them a compelling couple I’m rooting for. I keep using that word compelling but that’s the element that was missing in Elemental- a compelling story!

Unfortunately with Elemental I was left cold (Element City cold but still cold). A concept without a story does not a memorable film make…

5 out of 10

Frown Worthy

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