"Elemental" stars Leah Lewis, Mamoudou Athie, Ronnie del Carmen, Shila Ommi, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Catherine O'Hara, Mason Wertheimer, and Joe Pera. Released on June 16, 2023, the film has two different elements discovering how much they have in common.
The film was directed by Peter Sohn, who also directed "The Good Dinosaur". Many things come to mind when we mention the elements surrounding us, like fire, water, wind, and earth. We think of things like Mother Nature, "Avatar: The Last Airbender", and forbidden love? The latter sounded like something a big animation studio would come up with to get kids into the theater this summer. As we're all aware, Pixar is having a rough start to the new decade, with the COVID pandemic playing a massive role in their films having to be released straight to Disney+. Additionally, for plenty of reasons, the animation studio's first attempt at bringing audiences back into cinemas fell short with its "Toy Story" spin-off, "Lightyear". The primary one is that families are still trained to wait until it's on Disney+ instead of getting their kids sick, while the other is that the film wasn't as praise-worthy as the iconic animated franchise. With the pandemic behind us, Pixar is trying this strategy again with another piece of originality filled with anthropomorphic non-human entities. We've seen this approach being made for animals and even emotions. Now, they're giving the elements of nature a chance to act like humans to provide kid-friendly entertainment because children love nature, right? With that in mind, let's see if this elemental wonder has enough charm and quality to revive Pixar's reputation.
The movie takes place in a world inhabited by fire, water, earth, and air residents, with each element living in different parts of Element City. The story follows Ember Lumen (Lewis), a tough, quick-witted but short-tempered fire element working at her family's convenience store, owned by her father, Bernie (Carmen), in Fire Town. One day, a plumbing accident occurs at the store, resulting in Ember meeting and befriending a fun yet easily emotional water element named Wade Ripple (Athie), who works as the city's health inspector. As their friendship grows while exploring Element City, Ember and Wade discover an unexpected connection despite them being different elements that could end one or the other. When a catastrophic event threatens the city, Ember and Wade must unite to save their home and themselves.
Usually, I would see anything from Pixar in the theater first since I enjoyed almost all of its movies. However, I decided to save that for last because of "The Flash", which is more spoiler-heavy than a harmless family movie about two different elements falling in love. Fortunately, I did my best to avoid anything relating to this movie until then so I could watch it with an empty mind. Plus, my mother wanted me to take her to see it since the concept reminded her of the countless romance movies she loves to watch. As I mentioned before, I don't watch romance films as much as other people, including my mom, but I've been willing to check some of them out as long as their concepts interest me. Lucky for Pixar, "Elemental" is no exception to the latter. The question is, is the execution good enough to burn bright among the studio's finest works?
One of the things I can describe "Elemental" is that it's Pixar's answer to Disney's "Zootopia". Instead of using animals to portray people like us, the film uses different types of elements to envision our lives. At its core, however, it also uses the concept to reflect immigration, traditions, and cultural prejudice, with the fire residents being a metaphor for immigrants adjusting to their new lives in a different country. What makes this fitting is that it's based on Peter Sohn's real-life experience as the son of an immigrant family. It's always fascinating to see someone's life journey reflected by the power of cinema, live-action or animated. However, it takes more than inspiration to make a good movie about a family of fire immigrants running a business and finding love in unusual places.
Like almost every film from Pixar, storytelling matters as much as impressing kids and adults with vibrant colors and imaginative creativity. A great story can provide children with a fun and charming experience but also delivers plenty of metaphoric and thoughtful moments that older kids and adults can relate to. But, of course, it's not without a sentimental scene or two that'll make people sob as loudly as Wade and his family. Regarding these stories, Pixar usually gets this balance right, even if some of its films may not be on par with others. "Elemental" is another animation treat with that Pixar touch we've seen many times before. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. However, if you're expecting it to be the next "Toy Story" or "Soul", the film may not do wonders to set your heart blazing with joy, but that doesn't mean it's as disastrous as "Cars 2".
The film's story is a romance film about forbidden love that's also an immigration drama involving Ember going on a quest for self-discovery while finding love in the process. In short, it's like every other rom-com we've seen a thousand times, but in the form of a cartoon with talking elements. More importantly, "Elemental" is another family-friendly depiction of love, family generations, and connecting with others and oneself. You know, stuff we usually see from the House of Mouse. Understandably, these themes and narrative qualities are nothing new, no matter how different the world and characters are. However, what should matter is how much charm and fun it offers and how tolerable the storytelling is for kids and adults. Fortunately for my mom and me, "Elemental" is cute and heartwarming enough to provide animation entertainment in its straightforward plot, humor, and characters, even though the comedy has a couple of cringe-worthy puns that'll make specific people wither.
The only major problem I had with its plot was its world-building. It's a city full of walking, talking elements with different regions based on a specific element of nature, including Fire Town, where the fire elements reside outside Element City. The problem with that is that's all there is about this world. With its forbidden love plot, I expected the world-building to be more fleshed out to emphasize this idea further. Ember and Wade make for an interesting dynamic because even though they have differences that may harm each other (literally), they eventually discover a chemistry that burns brighter than Ember's explosive temper. It resembles the idea of a mixed-race couple through one of its inspirations, "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner", and the thought of elements combining to form a harmonious reaction. This would've been a great way to humanize the fantasy world with its ambitious and authentic narrative. Unfortunately, the movie thought saving a business from closure and a flash flood would be more engaging than its layered ideas. The story we got now is watchable for what it is regarding its direction and charm, but as a Pixar film, its metaphoric ideas were surprisingly dim.
Aside from its decent story, the voice cast helps deliver the film's likable characters through the actors' charismatic and heartfelt performances. Leah Lewis, who's coming off the heels of her first major film role, "The Half of It", did a suitable job voicing Ember regarding her relatable personality and anger issues. Whether it's enough for Lewis to get more roles in the future remains to be seen, but based on her vocal talent, I wouldn't be surprised if she did. Mamoudou Athie also continues to do solid work thanks to his role as Wade, a sappy water element with a good heart. Ronnie del Carmen and Wendi McLendon-Covey were also good as Bernie and Gale Cumulus, respectively. Clod, the young earth element with a crush on Ember, was a fine addition due to Mason Wertheimer's performance, but his characteristic almost put me off for some reason. It could be because he's the possible reason for its cringy on-the-nose puns.
But, of course, I can't forget about the film's animation. It's one of the reasons we watch a Pixar movie: to see the animators' hard work and talent being brought to life on screen through creativity and vibrancy. To no one's surprise, Pixar is still in good form with the animation style, even though people have already moved on to the Spider-Verse-inspired presentation. As usual, the animation in "Elemental" is undeniably gorgeous for its lighting and colorful settings, mainly Element City. However, I would also credit the animators for the character designs, especially their movements, fluid expressions, and shapes. Without going into full detail since I'm no animation expert, the technological methods helped the characters and the movie's world-building look more alive and unique, including the fire people.
Overall, "Elemental" is a fundamental yet dazzling treat that retains the irresistible chemistry Pixar has been known for since its inception. Compared to the studio's top-tier gems like "Toy Story", "Inside Out", and "Soul", the film fizzles in its storytelling quality regarding its limited world-building and narrative tropes. However, as someone who takes the film for what it is without setting the expectations too high based on Pixar's track record, I thought it's a cute and charming animated romantic comedy that'll likely please kids and maybe even a date-night crowd if we're lucky. Sure, it's not on par with some of Pixar's greats and even "Across the Spider-Verse", but if my mom and I had a good time watching it, who cares about how it compares? I'm okay with having good or decent Pixar movies amid its series of incredible ones as long as it has enough creativity and heart to make them work without getting into another "Cars 2" scenario. "Elemental" fits the bill just fine, and that's okay. The film's elements, including its voice cast, heartwarming messages, and sublime animation, burn bright enough to recommend this adorable and gorgeous animated movie to families, rom-com fans, and those familiar with its themes.