I’ll be the first to admit that, when I initially looked at Elemental in my inbox, I was hesitant. Over the years, Pixar has struggled a bit with its films, some of which suffered from being shoved onto Disney+ during peak COVID but also due to execution of ideas. From the lackluster Lightyear to the beautiful, but far-too-simple and familiar Luca, there have been some underwhelming films out of the studio.
That’s not to say that there haven’t been films that resonated. Turning Red had a relatable storyline along with its adorable yet humorous take on puberty. With Elemental anthropomorphizing, well, the elements, I wondered whether Pixar was digging too deeply into an area that they’ve visited prior in Zootopia. While some aspects of the film were familiar, and the theming not so subtle, Elemental is a pleasant surprise.
In Elemental, we are introduced to Ember Lumen (Leah Lewis), a first-generation fire element who has spent her whole life training to one day take over her father, Bernie’s (Ronnie del Carmen), shop. Ember feels a great responsibility to her parents, particularly her father, to fulfill their dreams after all their sacrifices.
As her father’s age starts catching up, the pressure to prove she’s ready to take over builds to a breaking point. Throw in her short fuse and a high-pressure sales day, and Ember explodes. This breaks a pipe in her dad’s basement and, funnily enough, accidentally introduces her to Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie), a water element under employ by the city as an inspector.
While he may have been sucked into the pipe by accident, that won’t stop Wade from doing his job. With his citations threatening to destroy her father’s dream, Ember desperately does everything in her power to make things right. Wade, feeling incredibly bad, invests 110% in making sure her father’s shop isn’t shut down.
This mission, initially focusing on preserving her father’s legacy, turns into something more; a romance sparks between the two opposing elements and prompts the important question – can fire and water mix or are they doomed to be at odds forever?
As Disney Pixar’s first romantic comedy, Elemental easily hits those marks. The two opposites attract formula never fail in the rom-com genre. By literally using contrasting elements like water and fire, director Peter Sohn and writers John Hoberg, Kat Likkel, and Brenda Hsueh have plenty to work with in crafting a charming pairing that will leave audiences (though, I suspect more the adults than the children) hooked.
Swapping the genders of the two elements provides a breath of fresh air. Ember’s “fiery” personality and Wade’s more emotional, malleable personality subvert expectations. Wade’s personality (and his crying) also provides a glimpse into what happens when emotions are supported and encouraged by family, and likely will open broader discussions on this topic. Leah Lewis and Mamoudou Athie excel in the voice work here, capturing their characters’ emotional extremes perfectly.
Grounding all of this is the discussion of expectations, particularly in first generation children. While the film focuses entirely on the elements, Sohn and the animation team pull heavily from real-world inspiration. It’s in the larger and bigger details.
From the beginning when we see how Ember’s parents are discriminated against and with signs focusing on the different generations that have come to the city, the real-world pull naturally fills in the blanks of the world building. The addition of the fire elementals’ language and customs also adds further that distinction between Fire Town and the more assimilated, streamlined Element City.
Ember’s struggle to choose family over the individual is a familiar one. She’s seen her father’s sacrifice, heard the tales, and internalized the desire to be the best daughter she can be. The idea of centering her wants over her father’s is not an option. Family is all that matters. Ember’s struggles will resonate with many.
The animation, as one would expect from Disney Pixar, is breathtaking. Seeing Elemental on the big screen is worth it. The distinct style differences between the elements are well-thought out. I’m likely wrong, but Ember’s design gives off a hand-drawn classic feel that gives a throwback vibe. Easily, her design is a personal fave of the film.
The architectural designs of Element City and Fire Town easily remind of cities like New York and LA. You can see how in Element City the design of various buildings shifts depending on the elements that work or reside in them. Fire Town also reflects its people, with brick and stone being the best structure for fire elements to live and work around. Aerial views of both areas present some of the most breathtaking images.
It can be argued that the story itself is safe in its predictability. Rom-coms generally are a safe area for storytelling due to beats that need to be hit and tropes. And, as you watch this film, audiences are likely to guess where things go quite easily.
But the relatable themes and scenarios presented in Elemental give it that extra push to make this animated rom-com memorable. Coupled with the voice cast, the animation, and its themes, Elemental is a pleasant comfort view for children and adults alike.
ELEMENTAL REVIEW SCORE: 8 OUT OF 10
Disney and Pixar‘s Elemental will open in theaters on June 16. The film is rated PG for some peril, thematic elements and brief language.