Friday, June 16, 2023

Weekend Screen Scene: Elemental, The Blackening

Pixar's Elemental may end up being one of the year's most touching movies about the immigrant experience and interracial romance, even if it's set in a metaphorical world full of walking and talking earthly elements, not people.

The story centers on the Lumen family. Bernie and Cinder immigrate to Element City to start a new life, opening a store in a neighborhood that becomes the center for the majority of the fire elements in the city. Their daughter Ember grows up assuming she will take over the family business, until she meets Wade Ripple, a water element who, in typical romantic comedy fashion, she hates at first, but then grows to love, as he also opens up another world of possibilities for her future.

Having fire and water fall in love may seem like a pretty clunky and obvious metaphor for interracial dating, but it mostly works, due in large part to the charming voice performances from Leah Lewis as Ember and Mamoudou Athie as Wade. So many animated movies depend on casting wholly recognizable stars as the voice actors, and it can often feel inauthentic and unnecessary (ahem). I really appreciated hearing these unfamiliar voices, and was also delighted when I learned Wade was voiced by Athie, as he's an actor who has enchanted me since I first saw him in Patti Cake$ back in 2017. 

There's a subplot involving a growing threat to the Fire neighborhood that, frankly, didn't make a whole lot of sense, and felt wedged in, as though they didn't trust the love story was conflict enough. The only benefit to that storyline is it allows us to see more of the world that was created for the movie. Elemental is one of the most beautiful films Pixar has ever released; it's absolutely gorgeous to look at, and will benefit greatly from its eventual move to Disney+, where you can pause and explore all the visual glory of the elements and their world.

Horror comedies are always a risky endeavor, at least those that aren't straight up parodies. Lean too heavily into the comedy and you fail as a horror movie, and lean too heavily into horror and the comedy can feel off-putting. The Blackening does a fair job at both, with a heavy dose of social and racial commentary thrown into the mix.

Eight Black friends convene in a cabin in the woods for a combined Juneteenth and college reunion celebration of games, drinking, and recreational drug use. (Recognizing the horror cliche right off the bat, one character remarks "To be fair, it's more of a house than a cabin.") The movie's tagline and central joke references another horror movie cliche: if the entire cast is Black, they can't all be killed off first. And this idea of "Blackness" plays a central role in the life and death game the party guests are faced with.

The Blackening does a good job of distinguishing its multiple characters right off the bat, with identifiable personalities and foibles, but the stand-out is probably DeWayne Perkins, who also co-wrote the screenplay, as the group's lone gay friend, DeWayne. He's got the best lines (and the best costume changes). 

If the film has a weakness it's with its ultimate conclusion, which does not come as much of a surprise, and with the performance at the center of it, which was not convincing for a moment. But I'm willing to overlook a weak ending when what comes before it so much fun.

No comments:

Post a Comment