By Alex McPherson

Strikingly well-animated and loaded with ever-topical themes, director Peter Sohn’s “Elemental,” Pixar’s latest, lacks storytelling flair but remains a worthwhile experience for all ages.

Sohn’s film unfolds in Element City — a metaphorical New York City composed of humanoid incarnations of the fire, water, air, and earth elements — and follows Ember (Leah Lewis), a spunky, hot-headed fire woman being trained to take over her family’s bodega, the Fireplace. Her parents, the aging Bernie (an excellent Ronnie Del Carmen) and Cinder (Shila Ommi), a fortune teller with the ability to “smell love,” emigrated from Fire Land fleeing a natural disaster and were two of the first fire people to ever wind up in Element City: a land full of opportunity and also discrimination. Water (the most privileged), air, and earth people treat fire people as outsiders, creating a cycle of prejudice and segregation at both social and infrastructural levels.

Ember is expected to run the Fireplace once the ailing Bernie retires, even though she doesn’t truly want to. She puts on a brave face through her barely suppressed anger; feeling an obligation to live up to the sacrifices her parents made to create a new life in Element City and remaining held back from pursuing her own ambitions.

She’s also been told from a young age that “elements don’t mix,” arising both from handed-down prejudice and the admittedly reasonable fact that water could extinguish her. After one particularly harrowing day running the Fireplace by herself, Ember loses her temper and causes some pipes to burst, spitting out goofy city inspector Wade (Mamadou Athie) into her life. 

Wade, a bubbly (literally and personality-wise) water man, pictured like a translucent water balloon with a dad bod, along with a propensity to cry and be vulnerable, has to write-up the joint’s building code violations, risking the permanent closure of the Fireplace. Ember panics, but Wade — being the ever-kind, compassionate soul he is — wants to help her out.

He secures a deal from his cloud boss Gale (Wendi McLendon-Covey), a feisty soul with a cotton candy texture and an obsession with “Air Ball” (a mixture of basketball and Quidditch?) to spare the Fireplace if he and Ember find the source of recurrent floods plaguing Fire Town. Along the way, Ember and Wade fall in love, but can their bond survive the weight of societal norms and cultural expectations, plus a constant barrage of eye-rolling puns?

Although most viewers will know exactly how this story concludes from the get-go, “Elemental” remains a gorgeously rendered, fittingly emotional story about tolerance, independence, love, and the immigrant experience. Ember and Wade’s adventure has enough heart to make up for an occasionally clunky narrative that sacrifices nuance for accessibility.

From a visual standpoint alone, “Elemental” is magnificent. Character designs are distinctive, adaptive, and clever, especially in their malleability and expressiveness. This is sometimes used for comedic effect (like an earth-being couple pruning each other’s fruit), but more often than not to emphasize characters’ personalities, like Ember’s explosive outbursts and Wade’s seemingly never-ending supply of tears.

The densely packed, Chinatown-esque corners of Fire Town contrast with the sharp, open-air skyscrapers of the city center, reflecting an economic and class disparity that informs the enmity between the various groups — presented with an obvious yet eye-popping touch. Thomas Newman’s dynamic score masterfully accompanies the imagery, taking cues from a number of global music traditions to complement this tale of cross-cultural romance and acceptance. 

Lewis gives a deeply-felt performance as Ember — a flawed heroine facing a real dilemma about the life she should lead while living up to her parents’ expectations — giving her more subtlety through her delivery than the oftentimes blunt screenplay affords.

Athie is even better; Wade is an instantly lovable goofball who displays an open-heartedness that’s infectious and sometimes hilarious without becoming irritating. Wade’s not especially complex compared to Ember, and comes from a much more privileged background, but he remains committed to her and their burgeoning relationship even when Ember claims it’s impossible.

It’s a commendable move that Sohn and company don’t give “Elemental” a traditional villain character; rather, the film’s primary antagonist is the idea of intolerance itself. Wade ultimately proves a vessel for Ember to unlock a part of herself she’s previously repressed, and a way to bridge cultural and societal boundaries, no matter how small-scale and unlikely it might be.

Indeed, these themes are familiar but profound, ever-relevant in our increasingly divided times. While the screenplay — by Sohn, John Hoberg, Kat Likkel, and Brenda Hsueh — can occasionally veer too far into heavy-handedness and exposition dumping (especially regarding Bernie and Cinder’s backstory and entrenched beliefs), there’s enough earnest truth here that “Elemental” still packs a punch.

Scattered within the obvious metaphors are poignant observations about assimilation, some of which are highlighted during a welcoming-though-awkward dinner party with Wade’s family that’s both cringey and true, along with moments in the second half that eschew dialogue in favor of pure visual storytelling.

“Elemental” remains a film targeted towards families, and in this sense, much of these narrative quibbles are excusable. Ambitious, relevant ideas are illustrated in a clichéd yet meaningful love story in a richly imaginative environment — a palatable way for younger audiences to consider these themes and apply them in their own lives, no matter how broadly “Elemental” paints them. 

It’s true that Pixar has conveyed equally layered stories in far more graceful fashion before (just look at the first 10 minutes of “Up” for reference) without having to spoon-feed us meaning, but “Elemental” still leaves an impact. It’s a (literally) solid recommendation. Don’t miss the amazing short “Carl’s Date” beforehand either.

“Elemental” is a 2023 animated romantic comedy feature directed by Peter Sohn and voice work by Leah Lewis, Mamadou Athie, Ronnie Del Carmen, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Shila Ommi and Catherine O’Hara. It is rated PG for some peril, thematic elements and brief language and run time is 1 hour, 49 minutes. It opened in theaters June 16. Alex’s grade: B+.

By Lynn Venhaus
Of all this summer’s films, “Luca” might be the one that gives you a serious case of wanderlust – and nostalgia for the summers of your youth.

The playful computer-generated animated feature sweeps us away into two exotic worlds – under the sea and on land – for a fun, fast-paced teenage adventure. You will wish Portorosso was real – not just a reference to Hayao Miyazaki‘s film “Porco Rosso” from 1992.

Set in a beautiful seaside town on the Italian Riviera, “Luca” is a sea monster-turned-little boy experiencing an unforgettable summer filled with gelato, pasta and scooter rides. Luca Paguro (Jacob Tremblay) shares adventures with his new best friend, Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), who is also a sea monster, and meets Giulia (Emma Berman), who will change his life, and her fisherman father Massimo (Marco Barricelli), while he’s hiding from his fretful parents Daniela and Lorenzo (Maya Rudolph, Jim Gaffigan). Can he still live in both worlds without fear?

Following a long line of Disney dreamers, Luca Paguro is a charmer – coming of age as he straddles his natural sea world and the picturesque fishing village he discovers during an escapade with his new best friend, the worldlier and more mischievous Alberto.

Jim Gaffigan and Maya Rudolph voice parents Lorenzo and Daniela

Luca herds goatfish by day, trying to stay safe, warned by his protective mother (Maya Rudolph) about dangers of the outside world. But he yearns to see what’s out there for himself. When he ventures above the surface, he appears to be a human, but once wet, he reverts to his sea monster scales.

With wide-eyed wonder and an insatiable curiosity, Luca wants to explore the vast universe that he is only now experiencing. It turns into an unforgettable summer on the sun-kissed shores of Italy, set in the ‘50s – captivating us in the grand time-honored tradition of a hero’s far-away journey.

The vivid animation matches the creators’ limitless imaginations, and the swift shapeshifting between the ‘human’ boys and the sea monsters is remarkable. During the credits, watercolor drawings, reminiscent of old picture books, dot the frames.

Pixar’s latest and 24th feature, “Luca,” isn’t as profound or ground-breaking as “Soul,” “Coco” or “Inside Out,” but is a pleasant excursion into a gorgeous nook of land-and-sea, as refreshing as an ocean breeze.

The characters, conceived by director Enrico Casarosa and co-writers Jesse Andrews (“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”) and Mike Jones (“Soul”), are distinguished by colorful personalities and exaggerated physical features – whether it’s a brawny dad bod with a thick mustache or a swaggering pompadoured bully in sunglasses.

The appealing voice cast imbues characters with warmth and humor, and particularly amusing are Sandy Martin, Mac’s Mom on “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” as the saucy grandma, and Sacha Baron Cohen as the hulking gravel-voiced Uncle Ugo (stay for the credits for more on this imposing creature).

 Tremblay, now age 14, conveys enthusiasm and amazement over everything Luca sees and does. The guileless Tremblay broke through in “Room” (2015) and has followed up with the earnest “Wonder” and the hilarious “Good Boys.” He is a natural fit for the sea creature-out-of-water Luca.

He pairs well with Jack Dylan Grazer, Eddie in the “It” movies, who is the headstrong Alberto, and Emma Berman as the smart and lively Giuilia. Their silly shenanigans recall vintage cartoons – and even “Stand By Me.”

Casarosa’s directorial debut was the lush moonlit “La Luna,” an animated Pixar short shown before “Brave” in 2012 and nominated for an Academy Award. Inspired by his childhood in Genoa for both the short and feature, he has infused this film with a marvelous sense of atmosphere.

Through a big-hearted approach, Casarosa has expanded on the themes of family, friends and community, while also bathing it in a gorgeous glow at nighttime. The lighting here is exquisite.

Cultural touches – on food, lifestyle and landscape – add to the film’s precise sense of style.

The music is another memorable aspect – Dan Romer’s score blends Italian opera, folk music and spirited instrumental pieces to amplify the jolly and jaunty elements.

An original story that may be more of a pastiche and feels like a beach read, “Luca” is an enchanting take on celebrating differences and youth friendships.

If you notice nods to “The Little Mermaid,” “Finding Nemo” and “Pinocchio,” so be it, but it also is an homage to Casarosa’s major influence Miyazaki — plus Fellini and other Italian cinema greats too.

Dive in and just have fun with it, an Italian ice optional.

“Luca” is a 2021 animated feature and comedy-adventure. Directed by Enrico Casarosa, it has voice work from Jacob Tremblay, Jack Dylan Grazer, Emma Berman, Maya Rudolph, Marco Barricelli and Jim Gaffigan. Rated PG for rude humor, language, some thematic elements and brief violence, it has a run time of 1 hour, 35 minutes. Lynn’s Grade: A-. The film is streaming on Disney Plus beginning June 17 at no extra premium fee.

By Lynn Venhaus
Oh, so clever and profound, “Soul” tackles life’s Big Questions with whimsy and warmth.

An inspiring ode to mentors and finding our ‘spark,’ this original screenplay by director Pete Doctor, co-director Kemp Powers, and Mike Jones is a fresh take on a subject we generally ignore.

Docter, the genius behind Oscar winners “Up” and “Inside Out,” has gone into new territory while the animators have done stunning, next level work we’ve not seen before.

As the first African-American lead Pixar character, Joe (Jamie Foxx) is a middle-school band teacher whose true passion is jazz. So, when he gets a shot at performing with the revered Dorothea Williams Quartet, he thinks fate has finally smiled on him. However, destiny had another crossroads in mind – and he has wound up in the “Great Before.” He is paired with a wisecracking infant soul (Tina Fey), trying to figure her life out. Traveling between realms allows him to discover what it means to have “soul.”

The music score is glorious, with hypnotic other-worldly compositions by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and jazz compositions and arrangements by Jon Batiste.

Batiste, the band director of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert’s house band, Stay Human, did the piano performances for Joe in the film – his unmistakable long lean fingers gliding over the 88 keys with such joy. The man exudes optimism every time he tickles the ivories.

“Soul” is geared towards parents more than children, but lessons can be extracted for older youth.

The small moments of life are celebrated, as are the colorful personalities we meet along the way – trombonist Connie, mystic Moonwind, seamstress Melba, barber Dez, obsessive-compulsive accountant Terry, and all those Counselor Jerrys.

Tina Fey is a delight. While Joe and Soul 22 are on their big-city escapades, which are fast and funny, the ‘no-body’ discovers Earth isn’t boring – although she refers to it as “this hellish planet,” but one whiff of pizza and she’s stuffing herself with New York City street food.

Steve Pilcher’s production design of a teeming New York City is remarkable, as is his ethereal Great Before, a mix of pastels and golden lights.

In much the same way as Thornton Wilder’s prose resonates in “Our Town” — “Oh, Earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you…”, “Soul” will stay with you.

And in true Pixar fashion, one must remain for the credits – and they don’t disappoint. The production crew credits appear in the beads of Terry’s abacuses, and the infant souls play games.

Instead of the production babies’ list, they’ve titled it “Recent You Seminar graduates.’

This trip to the astral plane is “Dedicated to all the mentors in our lives,” and is to be savored.

“Soul” is a fantasy animated feature film directed by Pete Docter and Kemp Powers. Starring Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Angela Bassett, Phylicia Rashad, Graham Norton and Questlove, the film runs 1 hour and 40 minutes and is rated PG for thematic elements and some language. Lynn’s Grade: A. Now streaming on Disney Plus at no extra charge.
Lynn’s Grade: A