In a city where the elements fire, water, earth and air co-exist, two mismatched residents meet...
Almost the entire first act of Elemental, the latest film from Pixar Animation Studios, occurs within a small block of a bustling city. The main character, Ember Crimson (Leah Lewis), is a temperamental fire element who exists inside her parent’s shop, a beloved, bodega-like establishment called ‘The Fireplace’ that sells fire cuisine and other household essentials for her fellow fire residents. Everything except water, of course. When Ember’s parents emigrated to Element City, they found the one place the city’s residents allowed them to inhabit and built a community removed from the rest of the population.
Ember finally has the chance to explore Element City after accidentally letting in a sensitive city inspector, water resident Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athue), through the pipes of her family’s store. In a touristy montage, Wade shows Ember the wonders of the wider city, from the cinema to the tram network. Accompanied by an out-of-place pop song from Lauv, the montage signifies Ember’s mind opening up to a whole new world beyond the limited scope of her family’s viewpoint… but in the most boring way imaginable. It’s a moment where Elemental could have charmed audiences by showing us a unique fantasy world, but the montage feels too much like the real New York City or Venice. The burgeoning love Ember shares with Wade through his small gestures of kindness, like Wade not minding his body boiling when standing too close to her, is the only thing that saves the scene from dull writing. This early montage highlights the film’s messy screenplay, which aims too big and undercuts the emotional exploration of the relationships at Elemental’s core.
Elemental drew inspiration from director Peter Sohn’s own family’s immigration to the Bronx from Korea and follows the aforementioned Ember (the fire-element daughter of an immigrant family in a metropolis where fire, water, land, and air residents all co-exist). The name of the city is an apt illustration of the film’s faulty script, which feels passed over in favour of devotion to the film’s aesthetic appearance—which, to be fair, is incredible. Co-written by director Sohn with John Hoberg, Kat Likkel, and Brenda Hsueh, Elemental is the first Pixar film to receive a wide theatrical release since Onward (2020), but sadly isn’t a return to form. Instead, Elemental is a charming but messy story about prejudice, acceptance, and love, both familial and emotional.
Since Pixar revolutionized computer animation with Toy Story (1995) decades ago, they’ve been a leader in the computer-animated genre. Like the studio’s many predecessors, Elemental shines in the quality of its animation, as its characters (particularly the fire elementals) pop in every frame of the film. Few Pixar movies utilise human characters, so Elemental is well served with more metamorphical characters telling a human story that should resonate with audiences of all ages.
Fire and water are at the heart of this story, so Ember and Wade are spotlighted, dazzling in unique animations. The air and earth elementals, on the other hand, blend into the background and feel like an afterthought instead of fully-realized supporting characters. It’s hard not to compare this with Spider-Man: Across the Spider-verse (2023), released only weeks before, which gave even the supporting characters their own unique animation styles. Elemental’s world just doesn’t feel as fully formed.
At least the main players—Ember, Wade, and Ember’s father Bernie Lumen (Ronnie del Carmen)—are full of depth and help give the story emotional resonance. These three are bolstered by the impressive voice casting. Mamoudou Athie as Wade is instantly charming, wavering between sobbing meltdowns and compassionate pep talks; Leah Lewis makes for a strong lead as the eager, curious, and irrationally moody Ember, holding the movie together as her temper causes problems that change the course of her life; but it’s Ronnie Del Carmen, primarily a writer and artist in Pixar projects, who steals the show. His character Bernie is a dedicated-to-a-fault, overbearing, loving father after the “Elemental Dream” of prosperity for his family through a generational business. His complicated father-daughter relationship finds Elemental at its most inspiring.
Despite the impressive voice acting and writing of the main trio, the world of Element City is underutilised. As Bernie hates water and forbids his daughter from befriending other elements, the moments where Ember silently revolts against her father’s prejudices should feel grander, owing to the world that Ember is missing and the film’s overt themes of racism and prejudice. There are some moments that achieve this, such as Ember and Wade showing off their elemental abilities along the bank of the city’s river and a game of Airball (Elemental’s version of Quidditch). The rest of the world, however, feels brushed over. In other Pixar fantasies, like Inside Out (2015) and Coco (2017), the worlds of the characters are brimming with life, each connected to the emotional heart of the story. But in Elemental, besides the corner where the Crimson family has made their home, Element City is just a regular human city with more vibrant colouring.
Perhaps the script was rushed in favour of the animation, as the dialogue adds to this quality imbalance. The many puns and jokes are low-hanging fruit, barely registering a chuckle from even the youngest of audience members. And the dialogue feels forced. A particular fight between Ember and Wade leaves all subtlety of racism aside and doesn’t sound like the characters anymore instead of 21st-century buzzwords on privilege. Maybe Disney is rushing Pixar to crank out films too fast, or maybe this was is what the filmmaker’s intentions were all along, but the story could’ve been improved by more rewrites.
Due to how uninspired the world-building feels, Elemental falls far short of Pixar’s masterpieces. Yet even their “lower tier” films resonate on an emotional level, thanks to gorgeous animations and moving musical scores. Elemental is no outlier. The animation contains genuinely breathtaking moments best experienced on the big screen, and the music by Thomas Newman perfectly fits the diverse world of Element City and the beauty of the characters’ relationships with each other. The combination of all this makes for the most poignant moments. Near the end, in a moment of revelations for Ember and Bernie, the film contrasts the bleak background of the shop with the brightness of the two fire elementals, the emotion beaming off their fiery faces… and without words, we feel everything they feel. That’s Pixar at its best: making inanimate characters feel more human than human.
Elemental offers fun for all ages and is a welcome return to the big screen for Pixar, so while it doesn’t reach the heights of the studio’s many classics it’ll have most people smiling as they leave the cinema…
USA | 2023 | 109 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
director: Peter Sohn.
writer: John Hoberg, Kat Likkel & Brenda Hsueh (story by Peter Sohn, John Hoberg, Kat Likkel & Brenda Hsueh).
voices: Leah Lewis, Mamoudou Athie, Ronnie del Carmen, Wendi McLendon-Covey & Catherine O’Hara.