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Ember and Wade, two characters in love in the Pixar movie Elemental.
Ember and Wade, the unlikely couple at the heart of Elemental. (Image: Pixar; Design: Tina Tiller)

Pop CultureJuly 7, 2023

Where’s the spark? Pixar’s Elemental won’t set your school holidays on fire

Ember and Wade, two characters in love in the Pixar movie Elemental.
Ember and Wade, the unlikely couple at the heart of Elemental. (Image: Pixar; Design: Tina Tiller)

It should be a guaranteed school holidays blockbuster. Instead, it’s further proof of Pixar’s decline, writes Chris Schulz.

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It’s a love story between an unlikely couple. The saying opposites attract is apt: one’s hot-headed, the other’s cool as a cucumber. But the pair live in a world in which they can’t be together. When everyone around you belongs to one of the four elements – earth, air, fire and water – there’s a simple rule you’re forced to abide by: the elements can never mix and mingle. Yet the two of them can’t stay away from each other. When Ember (fire) and Wade (water) are together, sparks do indeed fly.

The same can’t be said for Elemental. With its 27th film, Pixar it attempting to steady the ship and reclaim its crown as the titans of animation. After the limp Luca, the underperformance of Turning Red and the just plain terrible Lightyear, Pixar desperately needs a hit. It’s gone all out to get it with Elemental. Seven years in the making, with a budget of $200 million, it’s expecting this to do big business, the kind of box office success story a new Toy Story or Monsters, Inc sequel might become.

I’m sad to report that Elemental does not return Pixar to its glory days. Elemental feels like a throwaway, the equivilent of an artist’s b-sides album, with a few decent scattershot ideas in amongst stuff that’s already been done to death, mostly by Pixar itself. Crucially, Elemental feels lightweight, lacks soul, and has few of the knowing in-jokes that helps a movie connect with both parents and their kids. The jokes fall flat. The story is one-dimensional. Much of it is boring. Even the animation feels … off.

“[It] may be the first work from Pixar to feel like it was generated entirely by AI,” said The Hollywood Reporter in one of the film’s harshest reviews. Box office takings are not good. In fact, it’s had one of the poorest receptions for a Pixar film yet.

It didn’t used to be this way. Up until 2019’s Toy Story 4, Pixar had a lock on supplying school holiday stunners. The studio’s trick move was wrapping up movies that looked like they were for kids into packages that everyone could enjoy. They let kids be kids but also allowed adults to feel like children again, too. Look at the line-up: Toy Story, Monsters, Inc, The Incredibles, Up, Wall-E, Cars, Ratatoiulle, and my personal favourite, Inside Out. It’s a hard heart that isn’t softened by at least one of those films.

Lately, though, it’s been slim pickings. I remember watching Soul in Dunedin during the 2020 Christmas holidays and thinking, ‘Yikes’. While Turning Red had a great premise and solid reviews, it was thwarted by bad marketing and a lack of theatre promotion. I haven’t seen Luca or Lightyear because, to be honest, I can’t be bothered. The reviews sounded bad, the trailers weren’t promising and Pixar’s star seemed to be waning. (To address their problems, Pixar’s going back to its greatest hits. Next year, Inside Out 2 is released, and Woody and Buzz are returning for Toy Story 5.

Yes, Pixar’s internal problems may have something to do with this. It recently cut 75 jobs including several of the key team responsible for Lightyear. Much has been written about the misconduct of ousted boss John Lasseter. It’s true that Pixar is going through something of a troubled post-Covid phase, reorganising its operations while it works out the correct mix between streaming and theatrical release dates. It’s also true that Elio, next year’s space-themed original, could help right some of these wrongs – depending on its performance.

Pixar’s biggest problem is that times have changed. Things have gotten darker since the whimsical worlds of Toy Story and The Incredibles were bought to life. The studio doesn’t seem to be moving with the times. Recently, Spider-Man: Across the Spiderverse swung into theatres, showing off a dizzying web of pulsating animation tricks that pop all over the screen. It’s the best-looking movie of the year, perhaps of the decade. It hums with the kind of vibrancy and life Elemental can only dream of.

Then there’s Marcel the Shell With Shoes On, a film based on a hit stop-motion YouTube clip that has the kind of visual quirks and whimsical premise – Shells are alive! – Pixar used to spit out regularly. Even if you’ve already seen it, I’d suggest watching it again (it’s free, on Neon, from today) with a few kids on the couch beside you. They’ll be giddy with delight. Sadly, Elemental’s just not going to light your school holidays on fire.

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