Principal Cast : Leah Lewis, Mamoudou Athie, Ronnie del Carmen, Wendu McLendon-Covey, Catherine O’Hara, Mason Wertheimer, Ronobir Lahiri, Wilma Bonet, Joe Pera, Matt Yang King, Ben Morris, Jonathan Adams, Alex Kapp, PL Brown, Jeff LaPensee.
Synopsis: Follows Ember and Wade, in a city where fire, water, land and air-residents live together.
I was going to flippantly suggest in my opening line of this review that it’s wonderful to see the team at Pixar maturing and growing over recent times, giving audiences a real studio anti-iconoclast series of films in Onward, Soul, Luca and Turning Red, but Pixar has always had a maturity and adult-oriented sensibility despite delivering powerful family-friendly animated storytelling going as far back as their first, 1995’s Toy Story. Evergreen and eternal themes of social, political, familial and racial underpinning flow though Pixar’s carefully calibrated storytelling machine, most of which are incredibly successful, a few are moderately successful, and only a small minority are “poor” by the studio’s exceptionally high standards. Elemental, whilst perhaps not a film contending with the heavy hitters like Toy Story, Monsters Inc or Finding Nemo, sits well within the pantheon of everything else Pixar has produced. Warm, colourful characters, a tried-and-true headline-grabbing subtext (in this case, themes of immigration, racial divides, bigotry and family are prominent) and sublime voice cast all work in that perfect Pixar way to give us a wonderfully entertaining entry into their lexicon.
Young fire element Ember Lumen (Leah Lewis) lives with her immigrant parents Bernie (Ronnie del Carmen) and Cinder (Shila Ommi) in Element City, where they run a fire-based convenience store that caters to their hot physicality. They face significant xenophobia from other Element City residents, notably Water people, but make a solid living with Ember seemingly content to take over her father’s business when he puffs out. A chance meeting with sappy water element Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie) threatens to ruin Ember’s life plans as well as city safety, and the pair form a bond over a search for a plumbing leak into Firetown – the suburb of Element City where Ember lives – that potentially could force them to move. As the pair spend time with each other, they fall in love, something Ember’s parents are unhappy about, however Wade’s family is far more accommodating, leaving Ember and Wade to make some pretty big decisions if they are to remain together.
If I had to sum up Elemental in a single word, that word would be “cute”. Whimsical, fanciful conceits such as that described by Elemental, in which everyday elements really do come to life, offer grounds for fertile storytelling indeed, as fire, water, air, wood and earth come together in a metropolitan landscape not too dissimilar from another popular but underappreciated Disney animated film, that of Zootropolis. However, where racial and ethnic divides occurred between predatory animals and prey, in Elemental the inhabitants are divided amongst those whose very forms have potential to cause harm – water, for example extinguishes flame, and in reverse flame can evaporate water, resulting in two distinct peoples being physically unable to engage in physical contact. The fact that both films occur in a city drawn along these lines was surprising given Pixar’s typical approach of creative ingenuity, although there are enough superficial nuances in Element City to differentiate the two. Element City feels like a blend of Blue Sky’s Robots, Illumination Studio’s Suessian spit-curl iconography, and a bizarre utopian greenhouse conglomerate, with corners unexplored that perhaps offer more mystery than the film ever expands upon.
The adjacently racial connotations are conspicuously overt, which itself is something of a surprise from the normally circumspect Pixar, who tend to layer a film’s subtext carefully beneath animated shenanigans and antics. Elemental is, aside from cute, also rather obvious in its messaging, with racial division accompanied by themes of immigration, family, and of course, love. Adults won’t find Elemental quite as cleverly disguised in what it’s trying to tell the viewer as is normal, while kids will perhaps feel a little too much like they’re being lectured in such an overt manner. The script is credited to John Hoberg, Kat Likkel and Brenda Hsueh, and as one expects is filled with clever and fun sidebar characters, while maintaining a more rigid uprightness to the two leads in Wade and Ember. Both Ember and Wade have well defined character traits and legitimately moving emotional arcs, although if I was to criticise a single aspect of the film in particular, it would be that the love-story element (ha, pun intended) to their relationship never really worked for me. I found their attraction to each other and the blossoming “love” more of a corporate decision than any organic storytelling provision, which was troubling given how up-front the film is about their relationship.
Of course when you have two people who “shouldn’t” be together you get all kinds of Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner parallels and, while it’s fun, the film isn’t Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner. Obvious connotations between the more “stay in your lane” parents of Ember, played with gusto and care by Ronnie del Carmen (who, incidentally, co-directed Inside Out with Pete Docter) and Shila Ommi, and Wade’s more bohemian lifestyle of acceptance, are overplayed a touch, but as a genuinely great learning platform for youngsters to accept others’ differences I doubt you’ll find a stronger exponent than either Elemental or Pixar overall. The script is witty, playful with its charm and delicacy, and yet has a core strength when it comes down to delivering tear-jerking moments in the final act – and there is one moment that had me welling up inside. Elemental will affect different people differently I think, which is a true strength of any movie in just how it can polarise particular people who have very specific thoughts on a given topic.
As with any Pixar film the animation is sublime, the character designs on-point as always, and the visual effects are… well, I’d say sublime but I already have – Elemental looks and sounds spectacular on screens both big and small. Pixar legend Thomas Newman (Finding Nemo, Wall-E and Finding Dory) composes a wonderful score intermixed with comparatively prosaic song selections, while the voice cast are all absolutely in-tune with their respective characters. I have to be honest, this is the first animated film in quite a while where I wasn’t distracted by the “celebrity voice” of Chris Pratt or Jenny Slate or whoever, because (thank god) director Pete Sohn and Pixar cast for the strength of the characters, not the star wattage names they can put on the poster. Catherine O’Hara is about the only recognisable film name to me in the credits, having played Kevin’s mom in Home Alone; to their credit, both Leah Lewis and Mamoudou Athie are by comparison almost anonymous to most, and still excellent leading this movie.
Elemental is a very cute movie. It’s lovey-dovey perhaps just too much for youngsters who find that kind of thing mildly sickening, but I found it charming, to say the least. The writing is solid, the design and animation work of exquisitely detailed calibre, and the characters inhabiting this fantastical world of living elements just a cool little conceit enough to overcome a sense of familiarity with the subject matter. That’s about the only real critique I have on an overall level, is that Elemental feels like a bunch of other films tackling these subject have done so with more potency than this; go check out the aforementioned Look Who’s Coming To Dinner, perhaps Moonstruck, maybe Aardman’s Flushed Away, or even Pixar’s own A Bug’s Life for similar themes of acceptance and tolerance whilst exploring immigration and social xenophobia. Elemental is a gorgeous film to watch, and comes thoroughly recommended, but I think aspects of this fragmented subject matter are strong enough to warrant exploration on their own.