Beings made of Fire, Water, Earth and Air live and work together, sometimes uncomfortably, in Element City, the New World New York City of Elemental, Pixar’s newest animated movie.
Ember (voiced by Leah Lewis) is the young adult daughter of Cinder (voice of Shila Ommi) and Bernie (voice of Ronnie Del Carmen), immigrants to Element City from Fireland. These flame people (literal burning, flickering flames in a humanoid shape) are part of the most recent of Element City’s many waves of newcomers, which is why their Fire-language names get Ellis Island-ed into Cinder and Bernie and why there is a kind of fear and prejudice against them. None of the Earth or Water residents of Element City wanted to rent an apartment to a pregnant Cinder and Bernie when they first arrived, which is how they ended up in a dilapidated (but not flammable) brick-looking building. Over the years, they fixed it up and opened a market on the bottom floor offering authentic Fireland food. The business thrives, and from a young age Ember is told one day it will be hers. As she has gotten older, Bernie seems eager to hand the market over, if only Ember can prove that she won’t let her flame-y temper get the better of her (and occasionally incinerate some of the stock).
During a big sale, Ember is told to take the lead but finds she has to rush to the basement to do a little private exploding when her frustration with customers gets too much. She inadvertently shakes loose some rickety plumbing, causing a leak of water which includes the Water-person Wade (voice of Mamoudou Athie), a city building inspector. He was sucked into the pipe while inspecting a leak and tearfully tells Ember he will have to write many citations — 30, as it turns out — for all the non-permitted work done to the place, which will result in the business being shut down. After he leaves, Ember chases him down trying to get him to reconsider, a chase that leads her where she never goes — outside her Fire Town neighborhood and into the wider Element City. Ember and Wade spend a day trying to track down supervisors who can possibly override the citations, a day that finds Ember experiencing new things outside of Fire Town and Wade becoming besotted with Ember.
Eventually we learn that while Ember feels her life has been plotted out for her and that to be a good daughter she must take on the store, Wade feels sort of aimless, floating through jobs and regretting all the things he and his father didn’t say to each other before his father died. We also learn that while Ember is a wiz at making market deliveries, her true skills lie in turning sand and glass shards into intricate and artistic new works of tempered glass.
Who is the villain, my kids wanted to know before we saw this movie. As it turns out, xenophobia, the intergenerational pressures of immigrant families and municipal infrastructure neglect are this movie’s “villains.” My elementary schooler’s response? Phrases like “is this movie over yet?” and “can I go to the bathroom again?” At its core, this is a love story between two, like, 20-somethings I guess. It’s My Big Fat Greek Wedding but made in cartoon form (and without Andrea Martin), which makes me question its appeal to any kid audience and not just my kids who want someone being at least naughty as well as a bit of action.
This movie’s intergenerational dynamics also had me thinking about last year’s Pixar movie Turning Red, an infinitely better take on the idea of parental expectations in a family with immigrant roots. In that movie, as with this movie, the central daughter is chafing under the expectations of a parent and trying to balance her own desires with her sense of obligation to her family. In Turning Red, though, the central character is a young teen whose antagonist is frequently her mother in a very relatable way to pretty much any girl and mother. (Sure, they both turned into giant red pandas, but their whole dynamic still felt both very specific to those characters and very familiar to all mothers and daughters.) Here, the character saying “why can’t I just be a good daughter” feels older, more removed from the kids in the audience and less likely to have the adults in the audience saying “yes, that fire-person is me!” the way I felt I’d totally been that giant red panda.
What’s particularly disappointing about the core “is this movie over yet?”-ness of this movie is that the ideas about the Fire, Water, Air and Earth people are interesting — how they move through the world, how they interact with each other — and well-portrayed visually. There are cute bits (a lot of them in the trailer) about, for example, Wade’s family’s swank apartment being essentially a giant swimming pool or Bernie’s food being temperature-hot (and treated as though it was spicy-hot). But these little moments and visual elements are high-quality garnishes without a substantial main dish. C+
Rated PG for some peril, thematic elements and brief language, according to the MPA at filmratings.com. Directed by Peter Sohn with a screenplay by John Hoberg & Kat Likkel and Brenda Hsueh, Elemental is an hour and 49 minutes long and distributed in theaters by Walt Disney Studios.
The Flash (PG-13)
The DC Extended Universe hurls Easter eggs at you for two and a half hours in The Flash, the first stand-alone (-ish) outing by Ezra Miller’s titular superhero.
The pelting with, just, stuff — canon, all the canons, but also facts and names and little callbacks — is relentless. And once again we dive into a multiverse, the mention of which caused me to sigh a weary sigh. I don’t inherently hate the multiverse as a story concept but I just feel like it’s one of those things that has been so much a part of the movie soup lately, particularly in our two competing comic book-based cinematic universes. At one point a character explains the multiverse and the consequences of time travel by essentially referencing (and contradicting) a similar bit of explanation in a Marvel film. I think the moment is meant to be cute but it induces a bit of that soul-crushing feeling you get when you come across a giant pile of unwashed laundry or a sink full of dirty dishes at the end of the day. “Ugh, more of this?”
Barry Allen (Miller), the Justice League superhero known as The Flash, is still out there superheroing, saving babies and a dog from a collapsing hospital with his super speed and the like. He’s also working a job in criminal forensics and trying to help his father, Henry Allen (Ron Livingston), get his conviction for murdering Barry’s mother Nora (Maribel Verdu) overturned. His frustration at the lack of evidence that will exonerate his father sends him running, running so fast that he repeats the Speed Force he used to help save the day at the end of the Snyder Cut of the Justice League. In that movie, the Speed Force helped him go back in time a few seconds; this time he goes back in time a full day. He realizes that he may be able to go back even farther, far enough perhaps to prevent the murder of his mother. Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) tells him not to mess with time, but Barry can’t resist.
He tweaks the past just enough that his mom won’t need to send his dad to the store at the moment when someone breaks in and stabs her. And it works — he sees, in a kind of reconstructed flow of time, his mom living to celebrate more birthdays and other key life moments. Before he can make it all the way back to his present day, though, a spikey monster appears and knocks him into a point sometime after when his mother would have been killed but before Barry’s present. He goes into his house to find his mother, alive and well, and his father, not in prison, and enjoys a meal with them before he sees himself, some five or so years younger, walking to the house. He goes outside to waylay Young Barry and the two begin to strategize together about how to get Original Barry home to his time.
An attempt to give Young Barry The Flash powers accidentally strips Original Barry of his — and just as General Zod (Michael Shannon) shows up looking for a citizen of Krypton. Thus does Barry turn where he always turns, to Bruce Wayne. But instead of the Batffleck, Barry goes to Wayne Manor and finds an older Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton), who had long ago put away the Bat suit.
Yada yada butterfly effect yada yada multiverse — some spaghetti is involved in alt-Bruce’s exposition about what has likely happened. And, look, it was cute when Spider-Man: No Way Home or even the recent Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse riffed on all the Spider-Men worlds and characters we’ve seen over the last few decades. This movie essentially does that too, going back even further into DC’s past. There are moments when this works, but never quite so well as that “gathering of Spider-Men” in No Way Home where there were some emotional things happening. Here, it feels more, well, thrown at us — hey, remember this thing? Remember the Tim Burton Batman theme song? Remember Man of Steel?
When the movie isn’t putting all its weight on this load-bearing nostalgia, it’s leaning entirely on Miller, wringing every last comedy drop out of Original Barry being annoyed by Goofy, Happy Younger Barry. And then the movie tries to use the Lessons Learned (sorta) by both as the emotional core of the journey and it didn’t feel entirely earned.
The trailer gives it away so I feel comfortable talking about one of this movie’s bright spots: Kara Zor-El (Sasha Calle), Supergirl who in the Young Barry universe was held prisoner in Russia. As nifty as it is to see the Keaton-era Bat-stuff, I think this new addition to the DC world is my favorite part of this movie. Her terrible treatment means she’s not as hopeful about humanity as Superman(s) but she still has a sense of duty (she was meant to take care of young Kal-El) and a general Super-ness about her. Don’t get me wrong, she gets like an inch of development but for a franchise that generally does not do great by its female characters, the little bit we see of Kara is promising.
I feel like to some extent, if this is your thing, you rushed out and saw this movie, maybe the Thursday night it came out, and have read all the discourse and “Easter Eggs you missed” stuff online and you liked it or have beef with it but either way watching it is sort of your fan obligation. It’s the DCEU (or whatever it becomes as these films transform into new people’s vision) and it’s something you’re going to do regardless of how good any one movie is or isn’t. (The way Marvel fans do with Marvel output, the way Sex and the City fans can’t help but watch And Just Like That.) But for the casual superhero fan or someone just looking for a good popcorn movie, The Flash feels like more work than entertainment. C
Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, some strong language and partial nudity, according to the MPA on filmratings.com. Directed by Andy Muschietti with a screenplay by Christina Hodson and Joby Harold, The Flash is two hours and 24 minutes long and is distributed in theaters by Warner Bros. Pictures.
Featured photo: Elemental