Film reviews: Elemental | Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken | Smoking Causes Coughing

The latest big budget animation from Pixar looks gorgeous but a world that hasn’t been properly thought through means its fire and water romance proves a damp squib​

In the opening scenes of Pixar’s new film Elemental (PG **), a pair of anthropomorphic flames comfort each other as they travel by boat to a shiny metropolis known as Element City. They’re heading to a new life, but before they arrive at the Ellis Island-style immigration office (where their indigenous names will be condescendingly changed to something more pronounceable), the male flame, whom we’ll come to know as Bernie, gives the female, Cinder, a blanket to keep warm. It’s a small moment, designed to endear this couple to us by showing how much they care about each other (and how uncertain they are about their futures). It also raises a more conceptual question: why does a flame need a blanket to keep warm?

Sadly that’s indicative of the half-baked immigrant allegory that follows. Directed by Pixar veteran Peter Sohn (The Good Dinosaur) it has none of the thought-through logic of the pioneering animation studio’s best films. Instead, Elemental conjures up an over-designed, contradictory world where creatures representing earth, wind, fire and air live in uneasy harmony in a city where assimilation is harder for some elements than others and inter-elemental relationships are discouraged because, well, the chemistry is too dangerous. Or something.

Hide Ad

The chief problem is that Elemental’s central concept is too vague to explain easily, so even though it eventually takes shape around a simplistic star-crossed-romance plot involving Bernie and Cinder’s daughter Ember (Leah Lewis) falling for shape-shifting blob of water Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie), the themes it’s trying to communicate – follow your dreams, follow your heart, be your own person – get drowned out by all the other well-meaning metaphors for racial intolerance, class privilege, cultural heritage and whether or not the sacrifices made by one generation should be a burden to the next.

Wade, Ember and Brook in Elemental (Picture: ©Disney. All Rights Reserved.)Wade, Ember and Brook in Elemental (Picture: ©Disney. All Rights Reserved.)
Wade, Ember and Brook in Elemental (Picture: ©Disney. All Rights Reserved.)

In other words it’s a civics lesson in search of a story and, sadly, the story it settles on isn’t all that engaging. Ember, who struggles to control her temper, and Wade, who struggles to hold back the tears, meet-cute over a leaky pipe in the basement of the convenience store Ember’s dad has built from scratch in the Fire Town district of Element City. Though Ember is supposed to take over the business, her father keeps delaying retirement because she gets too angry at customers. Meanwhile Wade, a city inspector, writes the shop up for various building code violations, but has an almost instantaneous change of heart and falls for Ember as they embark on a mission to stop City Hall from closing the shop down.

Municipal bureaucracy isn’t the most obvious hook for kids and the ensuing plot has more holes than Bernie’s leaky pipes. It’s not clear, either, who the various elements represent. Are the cultured water people supposed to be ivory-tower-dwelling liberals oblivious to the complexities of life for people who don’t look like them? Perhaps. But what, then, are we supposed to make of the film’s decision to present the inhabitants of Fire Town – who worry about everything being “watered down” – as a non-specific catch-all for the self-sacrificing immigrant experience? As for air and earth, well, who knows? Air is represented by cloud people who like sports, while earth is represented by tree people who don’t seem bothered that the fire folk turn logs into food. There are other blind spots too and while the overall animation is beautiful, none of that matters when the core ideas are this muddled. Story used to reign supreme at Pixar. Elemental makes it seem like an afterthought.

Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken, (PG **) from DreamWorks Animation, isn’t much better. A rote coming-of-age film in the guise of a monster movie, it uses the titular mythological creature as a fanciful signifier for female puberty, much like Pixar’s last movie, Red. Like Elemental, though, it’s conceptually flawed. Ruby has blue skin and gills, but somehow passes as your average dorky teenager – details the film skips casually over when she falls into the sea and accidentally unleashes her inner kraken. Toni Collette and Jane Fonda are among the voice cast.

Since breaking through with the cult horror oddity Rubber (about a homicidal rubber tyre), French director Quentin Dupieux has carved out a niche as a purveyor of absurdist comic tales that take amusingly violent turns. Following Deerskin and Mandibles, he returns with Smoking Causes Coughing (15 ****), a droll superhero team-up film that mercilessly skewers the world-threatening plots found in comic-book movies by filtering them through the lens of an inventively gory Tales from the Crypt-style horror anthology. Dressed in cheap costumes and frequently found battling rubber monsters, the five members of the Tobacco Force –Benzene (Gilles Lellouche), Nicotine (Anaïs Demoustier), Methanol (Vincent Lacoste), Mercury (Jean-Pascal Zadi) and Ammonia (Oulaya Amamra) – are sent to a countryside retreat for a little team-building R&R while their drooling rat of a boss (not a euphemism: he’s actually a rat) keeps tabs on an imminent extraterrestrial threat to the planet. Once there, though, there’s nothing much to do except regale each other with grisly stories around a campfire, something Dupieux uses as an excuse to string together a series of surreal short films that collectively satirise the perverse way superhero films revel in our own demise. Even the running time (just over 70 minutes) feels like a sly dig at superhero excess. A slight delight.

Elemental and Smoking Causes Coughing are in cinemas from 7 July, Ruby Gilman, Teenage Kraken is out now.




Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.