Opposites attract: Ember and Wade in Pixar’s ‘Elemental’.
ELEMENTAL **1/2 (109 minutes) PG
So soon after unleashing the dismal Lightyear upon us, Pixar now offers up Elemental, presumably hoping this sweet, beautifully animated fable about acceptance and co-existence in a world full of difference will win back some faith while scoring some credit for promoting positive values to children.
Glad to say it does all that, though it’s a middling effort that looks splendid (as usual) but with a story kids are more likely to respond to than their accompanying adults, who might find the tale a tad too obvious and repetitive.
The scenario is one of Pixar’s most abstract: in the fluro-coloured world of Element City, citizens are divided into four groups, each taking the form of earth, air, water and fire.
The focus here is on the flame-headed “fire people” who live on the margins of a gorgeously designed Oz-like city where their kind are not welcome. Yes, the set-up is a not-very-subtle metaphor for xenophobia and segregation, and the repeated pounding of that message is what will probably make a lot of adults tap out.
Knowing how people from different elements aren’t supposed to fraternize, the hot-tempered Ember (voiced by Leah Lewis) finds herself attracted to dorky “water person” Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie), a council inspector who reluctantly has to report her father’s shop for plumbing code violations.
The film is strictly intended for children and the super-high standard of animation is an unarguable delight for the eyes.
Though passably pleasant, the film is so surprisingly light on laughs you begin recalling the big yucks we had in early Pixar classics such as Toy Story Monsters, Inc, A Bug’s Life and The Incredibles.
Given how the film comes to us in the wake of the box office mess of Lightyear, it is noteworthy that Elemental was directed by Peter Sohn, whose previous film The Good Dinosaur (2015) registered as Pixar’s first box-office bomb. (In fairness, the inflated negative cost of the film include about $150 million for marketing, matching the actual production budget).
Here’s hoping it fares better, if for no other reason than for the sake of the once-great Pixar. Now there’s a phrase we never thought we’d ever use in the heyday when Pixar was synonymous with the creative magic of old-school Disney animation.
YOU HURT MY FEELINGS *** (93 minutes) MA
Those sincere, if cowardly, white lies we often spout to help make the day go smoother is at the heart of You Hurt My Feelings, a thoughtful, thought-provoking mature-age comedy-drama about two middle-aged married couples who confront the thorny question of whether it’s a good idea to shield loved ones from the cuts of raw honesty for the sake of being supportive.
Written and directed by Nicole Holofcener with an almost alarming degree of clarity and efficiency that brings to mind the better films of Woody Allen, the film rings true over and over as the two couples wrestle with the issue lying to be nice.
Creative writing teacher Beth (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is diligently trying to finish her second novel when she hits friction with her therapist husband Don (Tobias Menzies) when she overhears what he really thinks of her manuscript.
Meanwhile her interior designer sister Sarah (Michaela Watkins) has her hands full being nice to her husband Mark (Arian Moayed), whose acting career is more a series of stumbles from one disappointment to another.
Sharply observed, it’s funny and insightful, offering a cutting look at awkward adult behaviour and the value of sincerity in the age of the ultra-touchy snowflake mindset, where criticism is taken as insult and unconditional encouragement is expected at every turn, even bad ones.
Louis-Dreyfus (Elaine from Seinfeld, of course, and so good in Veep) heads a strong ensemble, with the marvelously straight-faced Menzies doing a top job as a therapist whose effectiveness is aggressively questioned by a warring couple – hilariously played by real-life husband and wife David Cross and Amber Tamblyn – who visit his couch hoping to save their crumbling marriage.
Footnote: Given the film’s Allenesque quality, it’s telling that Holofcener’s stepfather was Charles H. Joffe, who produced most of Allen’s films. He took her to his sets as a kid and worked on several of his films including A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (as production assistant) and Hannah and Her Sisters (as editor).
FLAMIN’ HOT *** (99 minutes) PG
Celebrating the working-class values of hard work, persistence, family, faith and good luck, Flamin’ Hot, is an uplifting, feel-good comedy-drama about the allegedly true-life story of Richard Montañez (Jesse Garcia), who worked his way up from being a struggling Mexican cleaner at the snack food company Frito-Lay to an executive, all because he came up with Hot Cheetos, an idea that invigorated the company in the 1990s and ended up making billions.
Director Eva Longoria (yes, she of Desperate Housewives) brings a sureness of touch and warmth to the story, with Garcia putting in a winning performance as a God-loving working-class hero who overcomes the temptations of petty crime and easy money for the sake of his family, his faith a big driver in his dauntless mission to redefine convenience store snack shelves across America.
Based on the book A Boy, a Burrito and a Cookie: From Janitor to Executive by Montañez, the accuracy of Flamin’ Hot could be called into question.
In 2021, before the film went into production, his account came under fire from The Los Angeles Times, which claimed that Montañez wasn’t directly involved with the creation of the product.
Thus ensued much debate about the details of how the snack food evolved. Wanting peace, parent comany PepsiCo issued a statement supporting Montañez.
Walking back an earier comment that had raised much dust, it clarified that his story was not an urban legend, that Montañez was a valued marketing executive who had opened up the Latino market and that the development of Hot Cheetos likely involved people toiling away in another division of the company. The Times story was never disputed.
The payoff to the kerfuffle, however, was how Flamin’ Hot screenwriter Lewis Colick stood by the story, acknowledging that all films based on real life have some degree of license for dramatic purposes.
Quoted in Variety (May 2021), Colick quipped how “enough of the story is true”, that the film captures the “essence” of the narrative and how “we’re not in the documentary business”.
THE LAST DAUGHTER ***1/2 (87 minutes) PG
Very moving, hugely topical tale about the sorry ordeal of Brenda Matthews, an indigenous woman of the Stolen Generation who spent part of her early childhood in the loving embrace of a white foster family before being returned to her real mother.
With a heart full of conflicting emotions and yearning to re-establish contact with her white sister, Brenda discovers the full extent of the government lies about the circumstances of her initial separation.
Presented in full widescreen (thank you), beautifully photographed and sensitively directed – Matthews co-helmed with Nathaniel Schmidt – the film is a touching visual essay about a journey to truth, blending home movie footage with evocative recreations, archival footage and contemporary interviews.
It’s unlikely to pack out the arthouses, but a discerning patron seeking some cinematic soul food should find it satisfying and, perhaps, even stirring. There’s more than a handful of moments here that’ll make you tear up.