Tuesday, June 27, 2023

When Charry Met Soggy

Pixar's latest production boasts the usual artistry you know to expect from the studio, but the story it tells is generic and forgettable

As anthropomorphized allegories go, it's hard to do better than Inside Out or Zootopia. Their capable handling of theme, characterization, tone, pacing, worldbuilding, humor, dramatic stakes and background design set a standard of excellence that Disney/Pixar are now cursed with having to live up to every time. Their newest film, Elemental, is the quadrillionth romantic comedy about star-crossed youths from incompatible families, and feels like an unambitious retread of better movies. Although its message of love and unity is sorely needed in these divisive times, the execution fails to satisfy.

It's not impossible for a story to be about many things, but Elemental struggles to integrate the various points it wants to make. It falls into the all-too common trap of focusing on an individual happy ending that makes no difference in the existing social structure. One woman made of fire and one man made of water manage to unlearn the usual stereotypes about each other's people and form a successful couple. But the rest of their community doesn't benefit from their example. Prejudice against fire people stays unchanged, the fire neighborhood is still neglected by the municipal authorities, and the derelict infrastructure that causes massive damages each time a ship sails by is still not fixed. Even more damningly for a movie that wants to address xenophobic segregation, the details of the allegory fall apart. There are very logical reasons why anyone would be wary of people made of fire; a plea for mutual acceptance rings false when one of the parties is an ongoing menace to everything they touch.

Ember, our protagonistic fire lady, might as well have been a redhead for all the tired stereotypes written into her: she's short-tempered, energetic, volatile, and dangerously unstable. Her character arc reduces to admitting that she's lying to herself about her true aspirations, and until she achieves that goal, she'll continue to be a literal walking timebomb. Not a bad concept in general, but we've watched enough romantic comedies with the trope of the overemotional woman who needs to calm down. Her romantic plot, which is sold to us as the focus of the movie, isn't as touching or believable as her relationship with her parents. She's a doting daughter, mindful of her responsibilities and appreciative of the effort her parents have made to rise above hardship. The inner conflict between her sense of duty and her need for fulfillment mirrors every second-generation immigrant story ever made, but would have made for a more interesting movie than the watered-down romance we got.

The emotional flow of the movie is hindered by the very strange rhythm it follows. The first scenes go by at breakneck speed, as if desperate to get past the infodump. This is not like the opening montage in Up, which does cover decades in minutes, but treats each emotional beat with respect. Here the montage is edited as if it were a "previously on" segment that needs to mercilessly cut inessential seconds to get the story proper going. This tendency to avoid lingering, to not let the audience breathe, reoccurs at key moments of the story, causing a whiplash effect when a thoughtful scene is instantly followed by action. On the other hand, the rhythm of quiet but intense scenes is interrupted by badly misplaced flashbacks that hit like a digital glitch in a song. There's no acceptable excuse for a narration done in fits and starts to extend well into the second act.

Although the city where Elemental is set harbors a fabulous variety of creatures, we don't get to know them outside of short, groanworthy gags. The different buildings, streets, houses, public squares, shops, and vehicles hint at fascinating divergences in usability needs depending on whether the user is made of, say, air or earth, but the richness suggested by the setting is relegated to quick glimpses. The animators created a vast, elaborate space that the story has no time to show us. This kind of oversight is a headscratcher, especially coming from the same artists who lovingly boasted every corner of Zootopia.

And yet, the part of the story where the movie focuses the most attention, the boy-meets-girl drama that upends the whole worldview of its society, is the least interesting thing about it. Bland, predictable and shamelessly derivative, this romance has all the spark of water thrown over fire and all the spice of wet ashes. That this civilization took so many centuries until someone finally figured out that personal contact was possible between fire and water people is an unintentional but clear sign of how little thought went into the writing of this story. A much better movie could have been made in the same setting and with the same characters, but the script of Elemental gives them too little to do that is worth watching.

Nerd Coefficient: 4/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.