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+.
Alex McPherson is an unabashed pop culture nerd who contributes movie reviews for Cultured Vultures and Pop Life STL. He is also a member of the St. Louis Film Critics Association.