Happy Father’s Day! Here’s 10,000 Dad Jokes Instead of a Plot! — Elemental

William J Hammon
9 min readJun 18, 2023

Despite the fact that Elemental is the third straight Pixar film to have its trailer earn a place in the monthly TFINYW column, I went into it as I do every entry from this studio, with the hope that it’ll dazzle the eyes, fill them with tears, and leave the audience breathless with a combination of next-level animation and insightful examinations of the human condition, usually rendered through very non-human characters. These are the people that gave us WALL-E, Inside Out, The Incredibles, and of course, the entire Toy Story franchise. Over the last 3o years (almost), no mainstream studio (as Cartoon Saloon and Laika are still in their relative independent infancy) has been as consistent in demonstrating the true potential and testing the limits of animation as an artform.

Sadly, this is also an entity that has been increasingly swallowed up by the Disney corporate machine, churning out woefully uninspired sequels (and prequels), naked cash grabs to sell toys, and patent ripoffs of the parent company’s IP. Despite the meteoric highs, Pixar has also shamefully given us Luca, Finding Dory, Monsters University, and the entire Cars franchise. And lately, the standard-bearers for the medium have been on something of a sustained downturn, with only Soul coming close to the pantheon of what this animation house is capable of over the last few years.

As such, I sat down for Elemental with a mix of anticipation and trepidation, which I never wanted, and wouldn’t have thought possible 10 years ago. And unfortunately, that’s pretty much exactly what this film delivers. Throughout this latest edition to the studio’s canon, there are moments that inflame the imagination and come agonizingly close to something profound, but like one of its central visual gags, the movie pours cold water on the proceedings right at the moment of truth, leaving me more cynical than I could imagine from the people who literally rewrote the rules on the style.

Directed by Peter Sohn (whose last Pixar effort was The Good Dinosaur, so that alone should tell you where we’re headed), the film is essentially West Side Story (or Wet Side Story, to make a lame pun that still outshines 99% of the movie’s sense of humor), in that it’s a star-crossed romance with the backdrop of race relations and the immigrant experience. However, this is still under the thumb of Disney, so we won’t be going for legitimate social commentary or tragedy, but instead Pixar’s first attempt at a true rom-com. On the surface, this isn’t a horrible idea, but it is derivative as fuck, which means you need to go above and beyond to make sure this doesn’t feel stale and tedious, and Sohn has already demonstrated a lack of skill in that area.

The story begins with the arrival of Bernie and Cinder Lumen (and yes, literally EVERY character name will be a play on some aspect of their classical element), voiced by Ronnie del Carmen (who co-wrote Inside Out) and Shila Ommi, respectively. They appear to be the first immigrants from Fireland (and yes, they do refer to themselves as “Firish” as I cringe) to the relatively integrated metropolis of Element City, where literal and figurative “waves” of immigration have seen the settlement of water, air, and earth people, and most of the infrastructure is water-based. After some initial difficulties, the couple finds a disused building which Bernie fixes up and turns into a home and shop for fire people, naturally called “The Fireplace.” There, they raise a daughter, Ember (Leah Lewis from The Half of It), and as she grows, so too does the fire community, carving out a small neighborhood for themselves in the city. By the time she’s something resembling an adult (her age is never specified, and even if it was, I’d still be fixated on the image of a pregnant Cinder, because, how?), Bernie is ready to retire and pass the store on to her, so long as she can control her temper with unruly customers.

It is one of these emotional outbursts that leads us into the main action. After literally flaring up, Ember causes a small tremor, which leads to a pipe leaking in the basement, even though water service was shut off to the fire section of town years before. Out of the cracks emerges Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie from Jurassic World Dominion), a city inspector who got swept up in an unexpected deluge at a construction site. Noticing all the structural damage, as well as Ember casually noting that her father built the place (gasp) without permits, Wade decides to write up a plethora of citations and fines, enough to get The Fireplace shut down permanently. Knowing this would crush her father’s dreams of retirement (and likely kill him through overwork), Ember chases Wade through the city (she’s never even left the surrounding blocks), accidentally exposing herself to the wider world and winning Wade over with her sob story. He agrees to plead with his air boss, Gale (ugh), voiced by Wendi McLendon-Covey, to dismiss the tickets, which she allows in exchange for the two of them figuring out and fixing the initial overflow problem that brought them together. And thus, ROMANCE!

Yeah, this is flimsy as hell. The entire basis of this relationship is the tired cliché of attracting opposites, and any chance it has of working in the moment is killed by lazy writing. Wade introduces himself by rising from the puddles, sobbing over a family photo of Ember and Bernie, so in his literal first moment he knows how important the store is to them, as well as their father-daughter dynamic, but somehow it takes an entire chase scene (with one of Pixar’s greatest emphases — the high quality of the animation — firmly relegated to the background) AND a verbal reiteration of the stuff he already knew to get him on her side. Meanwhile, the first 20 minutes are more focused on approximately 37 billion visual and verbal puns and dad jokes (I lost count at 28 after about five minutes) than character development, there’s no time to explore how Ember’s outbursts at shitty customers might actually be justified, and Wade somehow introduces her to colleagues by name despite her never telling it to him. What exactly are we supposed to latch onto and root for here?

Still, all hope is not yet lost. As it turns out, Ember and Wade amazingly do have chemistry, although the courtship is insanely rushed (the film mostly takes place over the course of about a week, which is ironically downright measured by Disney standards, but not for any other world). Despite their over-the-top physical nature, there is a solid foundation of empathy that drives their decision-making, particularly when it comes to the idea of honoring their families. Also, their designs do represent the kind of awe-inspiring creativity that Pixar does best. The water that makes up Wade’s body is constantly flowing, rippling and waving all over the place in a well-made circulatory rhythm that also shifts the nubs of his “hair” from side to side. Similarly, Ember’s flame is filled with detail, expanding and changing color as it gets more intense, thinning and dwindling when she gets sad. It’s an excellent visual translation of her emotional state at all times. There is a lot of potential here for something grand and game-changing even within this well-worn framing device.

The problem is that the film never misses an opportunity to puncture and completely undercut its thematic growth with lame gags that never land. Ember talks about her Firish heritage and how important the store is to her father, only to have the moment interrupted by Bernie himself constantly saying something silly in his completely random accent. Seriously, sometimes he speaks in complete sentences, other times it’s broken English, and from scene to scene — sometimes line to line — his dialect changes. Sometimes he’s vaguely Irish, others he’s vaguely Middle Eastern, vaguely East Asian, vaguely Hispanic, vaguely Hebrew, vaguely African, and vaguely Eastern European. It’s like the movie wanted the fire people to represent literally every group of immigrants that white America has ever hated, but it makes no sense because the Lumens moved to a city of elements (where they are literally one of four possible types) rather than a fully diverse melting pot country, and by having Bernie be all groups in one, the script undermines its own messaging by basically saying that all foreigners are the same.

This is a plague that infects the entire movie. Ember demonstrates an artistic skill that allows her to discover her own ambitions? Well, let’s end that thought by having Wade and his entire family (led by Catherine O’Hara as the matriarch) play a “crying game” where they compete to see who can go the longest without shedding a tear, as if Pixar itself is daring us to get emotionally attached, even though this is supposed to be their stock in trade. Wade and Ember see the city in all its beauty from the sky, turning their “job” into a legitimate “date?” Well, here are two earth-tree things “pruning” each other in the window. The couple beautifully tests out their ability to touch each other (seriously the most gorgeous moment of the entire film)? Well, here’s Cinder spying on them and calling them out, followed by an overlong gag where the tiny flame woman jogs down several flights of metal stairs. Every time we get achingly close to saying or showing something meaningful, this nonsense happens, and it’s never once funny.

Here’s one of the worst examples. There’s a scene where the two visit a closed garden so Wade can show Ember a flower she’s always wanted to see, but couldn’t because of heavy-handed xenophobic racism in her childhood. It’s a heartwarming moment overall, and it’s supposed to pay off one of the more poignant themes of the story. But it starts off completely asinine. They come to a chain link fence blocking off entry, so Wade throws his shirt over and passes his liquid body through the grates, while Ember simply walks through, burning a hole in the shape of her figure through the metal. They then both sarcastically wonder why they even have fences. The answer is that they have them purely for the purpose of the sight gag, because fences serve a purpose in our world, so we’re meant to project a need for them in their world. But that also presupposes these people would build something completely useless to them to accommodate humor for people that don’t exist to them, which makes no goddamn sense.

To put it another way, think of the original Dumbo from 1941. How is the titular pachyderm born? He’s delivered to Mrs. Jumbo by a stork, complete with the poetic telegram, “Straight from Heaven, up above/Here is a baby for you to love.” So that’s how procreation works in that film’s universe. Now imagine a scene where some of the elephants come across a pack of condoms and start musing on their utility. They’re for us, in the real world, where parenthood isn’t a divine mandate facilitated by birds! We need birth control in our lives, just like we need fences, but beings made of the four classical elements do not, so why is it there? And more importantly, why is it distracting me from what I should be focusing on, the budding romance and gesture of pure kindness and empathy? That’s the core issue.

Despite my misgivings from seeing the trailer, I wanted to love this film. I really did. There is room in the world for a Pixar-style rom-com. There are important things to say about race and class bias. There’s crucial insight to be had in the stress of generational expectations and the idea of living up to our parents’ dreams rather than our own. I cling to those moments. But the movie fails to live up to its own thesis. Whenever Ember gets too emotional and has a fiery episode, she chants the mantra, “Deep breath, make a connection” to herself. If this movie had followed its own instructions by letting itself breathe and focusing on truly engaging with the audience through richly-drawn characters, this could have been pantheon-level Pixar. Instead, it settled for cheap jokes at every turn and torpedoed every moment of potential profundity in the process, relying solely on your affection for the studio to carry any emotional and intellectual resonance. Instead of inspiring the viewer and telling a compelling love story that touches upon underserved aspects of the human experience, we’re instead given an entry-level chucklefest without the actual chuckles, leaving the audience beyond frustrated thinking about what might have been, and wondering why it took Disney 100 years to finally decide that race mixing was okay. Walt must be spinning in his cryo chamber.

Grade: C+

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Where does this film rank on your personal Pixar canon? How many times can you roll your eyes at lame puns in the span of 90 minutes? Let me know!

Originally published at http://actuallypaid.com on June 18, 2023.

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William J Hammon

All content is from the blog, “I Actually Paid to See This,” available at actuallypaid.com