Elemental Review – A Perfectly Fine Animated Film

The phenomenal success of Pixar studios has meant that audiences view it as a benchmark for family themed animation. It has also meant that when Pixar releases anything that is considered below par, audiences and critics are particularly scathing. If a movie exists simply as a mid-tier or poor example of the studio output it is judged against the standards that Pixar set and not as a movie in its own right. Peter Sohn’s Elemental is going to suffer from this particular backlash not because it is bad, but because it’s not as good as Pixar can be.

Elemental is a well-intentioned, beautifully animated film. Peter Sohn takes his own experiences as a child from an immigrant family who grew up in New York and turns them into a rom-com about opposites who attract and a discussion about how certain immigrant communities stay ghettoised even in progressive cities for a variety of reason leading to the children of immigrants feeling conflicted about two worlds which they don’t feel are theirs.

Element City, essentially New York, is the home to the Water, Earth, and Air people. The last elements to arrive at the port that is a more welcoming Ellis Island are the Fire people. When they arrive, officials can’t speak their language and they are renamed. They find it hard to get accommodation and end up creating a relatively closed community that lies beyond the more prosperous areas of Element City. For Bernie (Ronnie del Carmen) and Cinder (Shila Ommi) crossing the ocean from Fireland and leaving their family to start a new life was meant to be them going into a larger world. Instead, they recreated a small pocket of Fireland with their shop and community hang-out The Fireplace. It was always Bernie’s intention that their daughter, Ember (Leah Lewis) take over the shop once she was ready, but now as a young adult, Ember has yet to learn to control her literally explosive temper when dealing with customers and is finding it hard to prove to her father than she can be trusted with running the shop.

One particularly stressful day sees Ember running from the shop floor to the basement to have a moment. Her explosion accidentally sucks water element Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie) through the pipes. The fact that there should be no water running through the pipes is one issue, the fact that Bernie never got city approval to turn his home into The Fireplace is another. Wade, a city inspector, has to write up code violations which leads to Ember desperately following him to ensure that the family business survives.

Ember even going into the main part of Element City is a big deal. For years her family and other fire people have been shunned by most of the other elements because they represent danger. Water elements have been particularly dismissive of fire elements. Air, Earth, and Water can interact, but fire… not so much.

Despite herself Ember feels a growing attraction to the drippy Wade whose emotions seem to come to the surface with ease and create strong bonds with those around him. Wade is smitten with Ember and tries to reason that they actually do have many things in common despite their cultural and socio-economic differences.

The plot is relatively uncomplicated – Ember has to save the family business. Wade and Ember need to track down the source of water leaking to Firetown which could destroy the entire borough, Wade and Ember go through the ups and downs of star-crossed lovers. Ember begins to realise that perhaps she wants something more out of her life than taking over the family business but doesn’t know how to express it without hurting her ageing and ailing father.

The mix of action, adventure, social commentary, and romance isn’t as smooth as it could be, but Elemental manages to scrape over the line with the stunning animation and the characterisation of Wade, Ember, and Bernie. There are cheesy jokes, some mildly adult ones that will go over the heads of the kiddies, and some good-natured humour that will work for all age groups. There are also some subtle moments that reinforce how even the most liberal seeming people can mess up and suggest that people from immigrant backgrounds are somewhat ‘other.’ No one is expecting Elemental to be a particularly deep dive, and it isn’t, but it still gets the point across.

Elemental is a fine piece of family entertainment with eye-catching animation. Disney taking over Pixar has been a messy ride. The choice to release Soul and Luca onto streaming were partly pandemic related, but their decision to not release the brilliant Turning Red into cinemas and opting instead to put their efforts behind the deeply ordinary Lightyear is baffling. Those decisions have meant that audiences are now defining what they view as “streaming” Pixar and cinema release Pixar. Elemental is not as good as Luca, Soul, or Turning Red and that will create some consternation. However, Elemental does reward a big screen experience, and its message about love, self-determination, and community is relevant and welcome.

Director: Peter Sohn

Voice Cast: Leah Lewis, Mamoudou Athie, Ronnie Del Carmen

Writers: John Hober, Kat Likkel, Brenda Hsueh, (based on a story by Peter Sohn, John Hoberg, Kat Likkel, Brenda Hsueh)

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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