Directed by Peter Sohn.
Featuring the voice talents of Leah Lewis, Mamoudou Athie, Ronnie del Carmen, Shila Ommi, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Catherine O’Hara, Mason Wertheimer, Ronobir Lahiri, Wilma Bonet, Joe Pera, Matthew Yang King, Clara Lin Ding, Reagan To, Jeff Lapensee, Ben Morris, Jonathan Adams, Alex Kapp, and P.L. Brown.
Follows Ember and Wade, in a city where fire-, water-, land- and air residents live together.
Elemental (the 27th animated feature from Pixar) is a vibrant and spirited song of water and fire. Everyone knows those elements don’t mix, which is the launching point for director Peter Sohn (and the screenwriting team of John Hoberg, Kat Likkel, and Brenda Hsueh), with the filmmakers challenging themselves to tell a love story between animated anthropomorphic opposite elements, using that dynamic to sprinkle in social commentary on life as an immigrant and interracial relationships. It is also a story about living up to high expectations from parents who have made such colossal sacrifices that the only way to show appreciation seems to be to take equally drastic measures.
Ember Lumen (voiced by Leah Lewis) lives with her parents in Elemental City’s Fire Town, regularly assisting them in running the flame-based family business convenience store. Her father, Bernie (voiced by Ronnie Del Carmen), is bigoted against the other elements (water, land, and air), who sometimes feel that fire should be watered down. Even if it’s meant as a term of endearment or suggested politely, such as when a water element tries some spicy stomach-exploding (literally) snacks and points out that cooling them off and placing them inside water makes them taste better (also one of many metaphors that water and fire can coexist), Bernie takes such remarks as a personal attack.
It’s also difficult to blame Bernie, considering the other elements have regularly made him feel like an outcast since the day he emigrated to Elemental City with his wife Cinder (voiced by Shila Ommi) to start a business and family, chasing a variation of the American dream. The immigrant experience is likely universal in many regards, which could explain why the voice actors for the family are comprised of different ethnicities and backgrounds. Nevertheless, Bernie is preparing Ember to take over the business one day, helping her home her fiery temper and connect with customers.
While retreating to the basement to let off some steam during a particularly crowded bombardment of rude and disobedient customers, Ember not only breaks a pipe but manages to suck in water element Wade Ripple (voiced by Mamoudou Athie), a city inspector who was in the process of investigating another problem. He quickly realizes that the convenience store harmlessly violates many random rules, quickly marks everything down, and delivers the report to his superiors. Upon doing so, a stressed Ember explains to Wade that her father’s store is now in jeopardy of being shut down while telling their life story, instantly bringing the water element to waterworks tears.
Wade decides to try retrieving the report, while Ember offers to help figure out the source of the citywide water leaks, bonding in the process and hiding that growing attachment from her parents. This allows Ember to seemly get in touch with their emotions for the first time, blocking out anger and negativity, to question her passion and what she truly wants to do in life.
The idea that these elementals have personalities similar to their properties is a logical and sound one that also admirably results in a sensitive and vulnerable male love interest. It’s a subversion from the initial meet-cute between Ember and Wade, where the latter is amusingly given the more conventionally desirable buff body type before dispensing excess water and returning to his average self. Aesthetically, fire-based elements are given a beautiful flickering animation, whereas water types are transparent (which also fits with how emotional they are).
The core story is unquestionably an animated riff on various live-action classics addressing and exploring racial dynamics (there are some meet-the-parents moments unmistakably influenced by Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?), but thought and care has been put into transferring those stories across mediums. Sadly, the world-building doesn’t feel complete since the story is so fixated on fire and water elements that there isn’t much room to study the others. However, Elemental is most charming when it’s less plot-oriented and more focused on observing Ember and Wade connecting by breaking down barriers between their elements.
Equal amounts of imaginative creativity have been poured into depicting how everything works in Elemental City, including the infrastructure and architecture of the metropolis and how the elements interact with one another. There’s nothing revolutionary or profound about the narrative, but not every Pixar film needs to achieve that level of greatness. Elemental is a splashy, clever spin on a burned-out tale with layers to its world-building, social commentary, and characters.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com