Film Review: Elemental
Director: Peter Sohn
Pixar Animation Studios
In Theaters 06/23
In 1995, Pixar changed the face of animation and set a standard with what is arguably the most consistent output of top-quality, mainstream films in Hollywood. That was nearly 30 years and 17 films ago, however, and it’s becoming harder for these films to truly stand out as monumental achievements every time. Pixar’s latest offering, Elemental, is just another Pixar film. That’s not a bad thing.
Elemental takes place in Element City, a shining metropolis where the various elements live side by side, at least in theory. Bernie and Cinder Lumen (Ronnie del Carmen and Shila Ommi) have immigrated to Element City with their daughter, Ember. The embers are fire people, and the air people and water people of Element City aren’t entirely welcoming to these outsiders. Nevertheless, the family stays and starts a new life as Bernie becomes a small businessman.
The story jumps forward to show us a grown-up Ember (Leah Lewis, The Half of It) poised to take over the family business if she can get her short temper under control. One day, Ember meets Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie, Jurassic World: Dominion), a water person who couldn’t be more different than Ember. Naturally, these opposites attract, and Ember soon finds herself questioning the ideas she has been taught about how she is meant to spend her life and who is a suitable prospect to spend it by her side.
Elemental isn’t reinventing the wheel, though it does stand out by being Pixar’s first straight-up romantic comedy. The story itself is rather simple, yet in true Pixar fashion, it’s filled with layers of subtext, emotional journeys of self discovery and plenty of hilarious and tender moments. Elemental is an obvious and effective metaphor for the immigrant experience, the pressure to assimilate and different cultures learning to come together in the great melting pot.
The animation is gorgeous, mixing art styles by giving the fire people a more one-dimensional, almost hand-drawn look while others—in particular the tree-like earth people—are more traditional CGI characters. The voice cast is great, with Lewis and Athie creating endearing characterizations and feeding beautifully off of each other’s voice performances to create a believable chemistry between fire and water. The choice to make Wade a soft-hearted, emotional cryer (he’s made of water, after all) resonated with me, and it nicely subverts the gender stereotypes that tend to ruin so many romcoms.
While the cast is less star-studded than we’ve grown to expect from Pixar, I found that to be a nice change of pace. Besides, any movie that includes Catherine O’Hara (Beetlejuice, Schitt’s Creek), who plays Wade’s mother Brook Ripple, is hardly in need of any other stars to make it shine like a supernova. When you add the elegant score by the great Thomas Newman, it’s hard to find anything to complain about here.
Elemental is not the most innovative, groundbreaking or toyetic animated movie of the summer, and it simply doesn’t need to be. It’s a touching and heartfelt story that makes me feel emotionally invested, uplifted and thoroughly entertained with its its positive message. If you’re looking for a great family movie or a great date movie, Pixar once again has all of the elements in place. –Patrick Gibbs