An endlessly charming crowd pleaser that blends traditional Pixar magic with original, forward thinking, Elemental will warm the heart and elicit tears of joy; a perfect reflection of its two main characters. While Pixar has never shied away from turning undefinable and etherial concepts into stories and characters, Elemental applies the studio’s ability to make the unreal connect with human audiences and strips it down to its barest, most moving essence. It’s almost deceptively simplistic, but Elemental has a huge amount of heart and perceptiveness that shouldn’t be slept on or ignored.
Director Peter Sohn (The Good Dinosaur) and his crew of writers, animators, and visual artists take viewers to Element City, a world where all four natural elements – fire, water, earth, and air – live together in not so synchronous harmony. The protagonist is Ember Lumen (voiced by Leah Lewis), a likeable, but hot-headed flame from the Fire Town section of the city who’s torn about inheriting the family business from her soon to be retired immigrant father. She’s not particularly great at customer service, and her temper often gets the better of her. Ember’s already testy nature is pushed to its limits when a strange leak starts spewing water into their shop (something that could, you know, extinguish their clientele entirely), even though the pipes have been shut off in that area of the city for years. During the kerfuffle, Ember runs afoul of water being Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie), an overly emotional city inspector who feels really bad about having to write up a bunch of tickets that could put the Lumen family’s cafe out of business. With the help of Wade, who develops an irrepressible crush on her, Ember sets about trying to source the cause of the leak and stop her family’s legacy from certain doom.
There’s some degree of obviousness to Elemental, and it does require some suspension of disbelief, but those seeming detriments a help to strengthen Sohn’s film as a whole. It’s obvious from the outset that Elemental is a metaphor for the immigrant experience – with Ember’s family coming to the big city following tragedy in their homeland – and a look at loss from the outside in, as most of the characters Ember encounters have lost someone close to them, and it seems to be the one huge setback she hasn’t faced yet. These subjects aren’t anything new, even for a Pixar or Disney production, and Elemental also requires that viewers not ask a lot of questions as to how its cityscape works on a logistical level, but if viewers can set those things aside, they’re in for a real treat and change of pace.
Elemental is always in danger of coming across like it has bitten off more than it can chew on a thematic level, but the complexity of Sohn’s interlocking parts make the whole of the film more fruitful. In addition to examining the lives of immigrants living in a place that’s not designed with their culture and needs in mind, there’s also an examination of prejudices, supportive parenting, and the value of retaining customs across generations. Elemental is also a surprisingly great film about city living, with a lot of say about melting pot interactions, bureaucracy, and the joys that can be found living in a place where there’s something new and exciting around every corner. It should be noted that Elemental is the rare animated movie where there’s no actual villain. The only baddies to be found here are prejudice and crumbling city infrastructure that no one has bothered to fix, which, if you think about it, is kind of perfect.
But beyond all that, Elemental is an unlikely love story, and probably the closest thing Pixar has made to an outright romance. The idea of a flame and a sentient puddle crushing on each other, despite the fact that it seems like something destined to end badly, is a bit on the nose, but the richness of the characters’ attitudes and backgrounds makes their flirtation one worth rooting for and investing in. Sohn examines where Ember and Wade come from in loving, contrasting detail, where the viewer is able to see what makes each of their backgrounds welcoming and annoying in equal measure. Lewis and Athie have lovely chemistry, with the former making a huge impression as an easily relatable heroine torn between family and autonomy, and the latter showing a lot of range as a softie from a privileged family with a good head on their shoulders.
And by this point, it should go without saying that Elemental lives up to Pixar’s high visual standards, offering up some spectacular characters designs and plenty of eye candy. The look of the fire elementals is intricate and constantly changing, drawing the viewer’s eyes directly to them. The air and earth people – who take a backseat for most of the film to focus on the core dynamic – are playful and impish in their designs. Sohn gets the most out of water, not just in terms of the characters, but also by utilizing the element very well in set pieces, most notably via an elevated train that splashes the streets below and during an underwater journey where Wade takes Ember to view a flower capable of blooming under any condition. Again, a lot of this visual splendour will probably lead to some viewers questioning how this entire world came together, but it’s not like wondering why cars have giant windshield eyeballs.
Elemental is a film that should please viewers of all ages. It’s simplistic enough for a child to understand and be entertained by, and it will transport adults into a world that’s easily identifiable to them. It’s very engaging in the moment, and after it ends, the story, characters, and themes have a surprising amount of staying power in the memory. Things have been up and down for Pixar over the last several years in terms of reception and quality, but Elemental is firmly on the stronger side of their offerings.
Elemental is preceded by a new Pixar Short, Carl’s Date, a charming, bittersweet return for the cantankerous Carl and his trusty, eager pooch, Dug, from the beloved film Up, where the dog has to help his elderly bestie get ready for his first date since the loss of his wife. It’s simple, sweet and lovely, a nice off for the character, voiced by the late Ed Asner. It’s worth arriving early for.
Elemental opens in theatres everywhere on Friday, June 16, 2023.
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