Wednesday, June 14, 2023

Fire, water spark an animated romance


   In a time of multiverses and multiplying identities, it's hardly surprising that Pixar has jumped into a world in which characters must learn to confront their prejudices.
   Elemental, Pixar's latest animated feature, offers a story about lovers who, on the surface, don't seem made for each other.
   Under the guidance of director Peter Sohn, Pixar serves Elemental's major hunk of symbolism with a heavy hand, creating an obstacle-strewn romance between (ready for this?) fire and water.
    Fire appears in the form of Ember Lumen (Leah Lewis), a flaming orange creature who's about to inherit a store operated by her father (Ronnie Del Carmen) and her mother (Shila Ommi). 
   The Lumen family are immigrants in Element City, a whimsically realized urban center divided into neighborhoods occupied by creatures inspired by four elements: earth, air, water, and fire. 
   Fire and water begin to mix when Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie),  a hunky bubble of a character, turns up in Firetown. Fire and water aren't compatible, which means the movie must work overtime to show that different ethnicities don't necessarily doom a developing romantic relationship between Amber and Wade.
    When Pop Lumen's store springs a water leak, Wade, a city inspector, offers to help Ember meet a deadline to set things straight; she has one week to correct the situation. 
   To further complicate the story, Amber, who's prone to incendiary bursts of temper, isn't eager to take over the family business. She has her own dreams.
   The animation is mostly fanciful. The voice work engages. Even a wobbly approach to a stream of ethnic/racial themes proves workable -- if not deeply explored.
    In a major set piece -- every animated movie needs one -- Amber visits an underwater garden from which she and other fire people previously had been banned. The movie thus leaps into additional trendy terrain: Systemic prejudice works against the fulfillment of individual dreams.
    Although it benefits from an eclectic musical score by Thomas Newman, Elemental may not rank among Pixar's best. Still, it's passable, particularly for younger audiences. Fire notwithstanding, the movie is more likely to tug the heart strings than leave audience suffering from heartburn. 
    Strained heat references on my part, but, hey, we’re talking the visually complex and thematically crammed world of Elemental.
    Maybe I'm too literal minded but the movie's central metaphor struck me as suspect. The next time something burns, I doubt that love and acceptance will leap to mind. I'll be calling for the firehoses.

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