‘Elemental’ Review

To expand upon my quick thoughts in the video, Elemental is a computer-animated romantic dramedy directed by Peter Sohn (The Good Dinosaur) from a screenplay written by Sohn, John Hoberg, Kat Likkel (My Name Is Earl), and Brenda Hsueh (How I Met Your Mother). Featuring Leah Lewis, Mamoudou Athie, Ronnie del Carmen, Shila Ommi, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Catherine O’Hara, Mason Wertheimer, Joe Pera, and Matt Yang King; Elemental is Pixar’s 27th feature film. The story follows Ember Lumen, a hot-tempered fire element, who ends up falling for a sappy water element named Wade Ripple after a chance encounter at her family’s shop in Fire Town.

On a small boat, a fire element (Ronnie del Carmen) and his pregnant wife (Shila Ommi) arrive on the shores of Element City to start a new life. Before they can dock a large boat filled with water elements comes in beside them. On the shore, they see many more elements arrive in the city. As the couple pass through customs, they are asked to give their names. Unfortunately, the customs agent cannot understand their native language and gives them the names Bernie and Cinder. The two traverse the city looking for a place to stay and are turned down multiple times due to the other elements’ prejudice about fire. Eventually, Bernie finds an old run-down building for sale on the outskirts of the city and decides to buy it and fix it up for his family.

Bernie starts a convenience store, The Fireplace, specializing in selling goods to fire elements. Cinder gives birth to a daughter and they name her Ember (Leah Lewis). Eventually, more fire elements arrive in Element City and the outskirts become known as Fire Town. Over the years Ember is shown to enjoy working with her dad and talking to the customers at the shop. However, she is also shown to have a short temper, especially when customers disrespect her family’s shop. When Bernie lets his daughter run the shop alone one day a violent outburst of hers causes a pipe to burst, flooding the shop. After smoldering the pipe to stop the flooding, Ember notices a water element named Wade (Mamoudou Athie) was sucked through.

I have always been a fan of Pixar ever since I saw the first Toy Story. For many years they were seen as the pinnacle of 3D computer-generated animation. So much in fact that you can’t find a single studio today that will put out an animated feature that’s in 2D. Since the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature was first introduced at the 74th Oscars ceremony in 2002 Pixar has won 11 awards out of 17 nominations! That’s the most out of any other studio, including their sister company Disney Animation. Today the times are changing and other studios are switching to more radiant animation styles as witnessed by Sony’s Spider-Verse franchise and Puss in Boots: The Last Wish. The only examples I know of Pixar changing up their animation style are Soul and Luca.

Elemental is a love letter to immigrants who came to America to seek a better life. While I’m sure all immigrants can relate to the story Ember and her family are coded as Asian. This would be in line with Ember and Bernie being voiced by Chinese-American and Filippino actors and the director, Peter Sohn whose parents were Korean immigrants. Fire Town is an allegory for Chinatown where most of the residents are Asian or of Asian descent and the shops are family owned and sell Asian products. But the movie doesn’t just stop there. Beneath this immigration story, there is also a love story about two people who are from completely different cultures. Seeing how they come together despite other people telling them they will never work was a highlight for me and I’m sure it will be for many other multicultural families as well. Also, wrapping this story in the guise of a world filled with living elements is an interesting choice. Although it is typical of Pixar to give emotions to things that are normally alive i.e., toys, bugs, robots, cars, emotions, etc. I do wish we got to explore more of the world and see if any other elements have ever fallen in love. You don’t see any other mixed couples in the movie which I feel is a missed opportunity.

Like with many Pixar films, there are mature themes wrapped in a package that kids can digest. There are notes of emotional management, living up to your parent’s expectations, prejudice, and generational trauma. It’s a lot to unpack but Sohn handles it very well. Usually, the characters in a Pixar movie go on some kind of fun adventure, but this film is more subdued than that. While there is a little bit of sleuthing going on, the mystery isn’t what’s important. This could detract some younger viewers as it might not be exciting enough for them. Although I took my 4-year-old daughter and she seemed to thoroughly enjoy it. That being said, it does feel like there was a story element (no pun intended) cut out for time. When Wade is investigating the water coming into Fire Town he keeps finding motor oil making it seem as if someone was sending it there on purpose. This does not seem to have anything to do with the issue by the end of the movie, however.

What’s surprising to me is that the budget for Elemental was $200 million which seems steep. One of the things I love most about the movie is that there are very few popular voices for the characters. The biggest stars in the picture are Wendi McLendon-Covey and Catherine O’Hara who play Gale Cumulus and Brook Ripple respectively. Their roles are very small so I can’t imagine where all the money went. To put it in perspective, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse cost half as much money and is a way better movie. Even that movie has some big names attached to it in prominent roles. And with Pixar in a rut, no big names might mean a smaller box office return. I think moving forward Pixar and other movie studios in general should rethink how much money they are putting into their movie budgets.

Overall, this is another solid entry by Pixar that is sure to tug on the heart strings of many families. The characters are fun and the love story is cute. I give Elemental a Decent 7.6/10. I would like to see these characters and this world return in a future installment. I left the theater with so many questions namely what element would Ember and Wade’s child be? My guess is steam as that’s what happens when you heat water.

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