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Review: Pixar Misses the Mark with "Elemental"

"Elements don't mix!"

In the grand tradition of Pixar movies, "Elemental" might be among some of my least favorites. But I am very aware that the film is geared towards a young audience, and my 40-year-old ass is not its prime target. I can also admit to loving many, excuse the phrasing, elements of the film. It's directed by Peter Sohn, an animator who has had his hands in everything from "The Iron Giant" and "WALL-E" to "Toy Story 3." The movie's animation is impressive, imbuing whimsical colors and dazzling light that fits well within a fictional world about the Earth's elements. Yet, there's something amiss in "Elemental," which comes down to the writing.

"Elemental" introduces its viewers to an imaginary world called Element City, populated by unique characters representing fire, water, land, and air. Seemingly, all of these elements live together in harmony, but under the surface lie biases plagued by a history of bigotry. Call it racism if you dare, which this film attempts to permeate with some uneven footing. Its star-crossed leads, Ember (Leah Lewis) and Wade (Mamoudou Athie), primarily challenge this notion. Ember manifests a fiery spirit, mostly because she's actually a flame in heels, while Wade is our well-meaning aqua man of the hour.

Fire and water could never be friends as the two elements seemingly cancel each other out, but Ember and Wade might defy the odds.

In a city where the elements are aware of one another but don't intentionally mix, it's easy to compare the obstacles in "Elemental" to that of Romeo and Juliet. Yes, there's the obvious portrayal of xenophobia and climate change that adults will pick up. Younger moviegoers might just see two characters fighting for the chance to be together despite their differences. It's a warm topic that gets cold very quickly.

The screenplay for "Elemental," written by Sohn, John Hoberg, Kat Likkel, and Brenda Hsueh, is well-intentioned but sadly misplaced. The film's premise is remarkably surface-level and never dives into a more profound meaning beyond apparent comparisons to other Disney-led projects. The voice cast does their best with the pun-filled characters they've been given, including Ronnie del Carmen as Ember's soon-to-be-retired and skeptical father, as well as Wendi McLendon-Covey as Wade's windy boss Gale, who steals every scene. The lack of huge stars behind this Pixar entry should be telling. However, we do get some lovely scenes from the talented Catherine O'Hara as Wade's emotional mother, who welcomes Ember with openly wet arms.

The standout quality of "Elemental," besides the two lead voices who beam with talent, is the film's score by Thomas Newman. A favorite among film composers well-known for his work behind "The Shawshank Redemption," "American Beauty," and "Finding Nemo," Newman's music is a highlight in a colorful movie with appropriate forethought. The score and soundtrack give even the dullest scenes a bit of a lift as fire and water attempt to find common ground in a world not built for their coexistence.

No Rating - it's a $200 million budgeted kid's movie, after all.


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