Animation brings impossible, fantastical worlds to life in a way live-action just can’t emulate. Pixar is particularly masterful at crafting how these worlds look and function, whether it’s the monster society in Monsters, Inc. or the inside of a 13-year-old’s mind in Inside Out. But there’s a delicate balance in keeping a world rooted in reality while incorporating more fantastical elements — and Elemental, Pixar’s newest film, steps across that line.
It isn’t the studio’s first film to do so. There’s another Pixar film with mind-boggling world-building that distracts from the actual core of the story, to the point where the big questions about how everything works are the only thing people talk about years later. Elemental is the new Cars.
[Ed. note: This post contains minor spoilers for Elemental.]
The core of Elemental is about cross-cultural relationships and the pressure of being a second-generation immigrant living up to parental expectations, while trying to figure out what you actually want out of life. The characters and their relationships are vibrant and fully fleshed out. Visually, Elemental is up there with Inside Out in just how dang cool it looks. But every tender, heartfelt moment in Elemental immediately raises a million world-building questions. While fantasy movies certainly don’t have to address every single wrinkle of their settings, there comes a point where the cool aesthetic and zany elements erode the heart of a story.
Cars actually pulls this off slightly better than Elemental, if only because the story itself doesn’t go very deep. What costs Cars in the long run is that it’s seemingly set in our world. It just happens to be a version of our world populated by cars for some reason, so it has a car Pope, inexplicable baby cars, and car dinosaurs. Also there may have been a car version of World War II. These details, seemingly designed to root the world in something familiar, end up just making the whole story weirder if you think too hard about it.
Elemental has the luxury of being in a fantasy world that doesn’t brush against humanity’s automotive achievements, so it isn’t beholden to internet theories about whether certain real-world historical events happened. But there are still a lot of big setting questions that undermine the movie’s emotional beats.
The most frustrating one centers around the romance between fire-person Ember and water-person Wade. The story hammers home over and over again that elements do not mix, especially in relationships. Ember struggles to get around Element City without getting splashed with water (which puts out part of her flame and could potentially be lethal), or accidentally lighting people or their possessions on fire. When Ember and Wade do connect, it’s established very early on that they cannot touch. Wade might put Ember out, or Ember might evaporate Wade.
But she’s seen holding a paper brochure — which she later casually burns with her hands when she no longer needs it — and she regularly handles cardboard boxes without setting them on fire. The big emotional moment when she and Wade do hold hands is moving and touching... but she’s touched so many other things without an issue up to that moment that it all feels a bit deflated by the end.
Ember and Wade’s physical interaction is the most crucial example of the kind of contradictions that abound throughout the movie. Are the Earth people (who mostly have trees or bushes growing out of them) offended that the Fire people regularly snack on wood? The Water and Air people can essentially disperse their parts and reappear, but why doesn’t it work that way for the Fire and Earth people? Why are inter-elemental relationships so taboo when it seems that Air, Earth, and Water would mix just fine? Why would Ember’s parents leave Fireland after one bad storm to go to a city that’s even more hostile and centered around water? I hate poking holes into a fun, wacky setting, but when the emotional basis of the film centers around some of these inconsistencies, the story’s curious and inviting world-building actually puts a damper on what could be a very stirring movie.
As Polygon’s resident Cars apologist, I want to acknowledge that none of this is necessarily a bad thing. With time, maybe these world-building questions will transform into fun quirks about the movie, in the same way that all the wacky questions about Cars have now become an essential part of the viewing experience. The best part of any new Cars story is figuring out what weird world-building element will be added to the canon next. Elemental, however, might need more time to get to that level of “Sure, why the hell not?” It’s a deeper, more nuanced story than the Cars franchise ever was, so the lapses in logic burn harder.
Elemental is in theaters now.