‘Elemental’ Plays it Safe but is Solid, Breezy Fun from Pixar (Review)

by | Jun 15, 2023

A hotheaded fire elemental and an emotional water being explore the world around them and each other in Pixar’s newest animated adventure.

The Pixar arm of the Walt Disney Corporation has had hit-and-miss success during and coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic: while Soul did net them another Academy Award for Best Animated Feature in 2021, the rest of their recent efforts like Luca and Turning Red have had their legacies hindered by an unfortunate release strategy that relegates them straight to the streaming service Disney+ rather than theaters, where they belong. This in turn affected the less-than-stellar box office returns from the otherwise entertaining Lightyear, but it’ll be interesting to see whether it yields similar results for their newest film Elemental, which is enjoyable, fast-paced fun that one would expect from Pixar despite its missed opportunity to say something more substantial about multicultural co-existence and contemporary race relations.

Taking place in the town of Element City, Elemental follows Ember Lumen (Leah Lewis), a female fire elemental working in The Fireplace, her parents’ convenience store-restaurant hybrid in the low-income district of Fire Town, longing to prove to her parents Bernie (Ronnie Del Carmen) and mother Cinder (Shila Ommi) that she is ready to run the family business without supervision, but her temper interferes with her goal when the store is overrun with customers. One such incident triggers a flood in The Fireplace’s basement, which draws the attention of the emotional Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie), a water-based code inspector intent on shutting the restaurant down upon discovering the store violates many city regulations. 

But after being moved to tears by Ember’s upbringing as an immigrant, Wade agrees to help her fight the citations by bringing her to his cloud co-worker Gale (Wendi McLendon-Covey) and his bureaucratic tree boss Fern Grouchwood (Joe Pera), while Ember helps him solve the mystery of what’s causing spontaneous leaks all over Element City. The two slowly become more in tune with their emotions throughout their adventure, and even form a romantic bond despite Ember’s belief instilled by her parents that people of different elements don’t mix for reasons pertaining to unease between the districts, in addition to the possible physical dangers of such coupling. 

Like every film from Pixar, the computer animation of Elemental is gorgeously rendered, from the vibrant landscapes of all the different districts throughout Element City to the character designs; the fire and water textures on both Ember and Wade are just beautiful to look at for their realism; light reflects off Wade as it would off real life water, while Ember’s fire-based body changes colors from red to blue depending on her stress level. There’s even a lovely moment when she leaps from multicolored mineral to mineral during a montage where the two show each other the unique things they’re able to accomplish with their respective properties.

Thomas Newman’s score is also excellent when it implements international sounds, such as in an early chase scene that sees Ember trying to reach Wade before he can report the citations against The Fireplace to raucous tribal percussion, and Ember herself has a relatable character arc where she has to overcome generational expectations and become her own person. To that end, the script must be commended for tastefully touching on the financial and societal struggles of immigrants without reducing the fire characters into stereotypes, instead giving them traits from a variety of cultures to create their own civilization of fire elementals.

And yet, there is a thematic element about interracial relationships that the script of Elemental elects to dance around rather than dive into wholeheartedly. It’s constantly established throughout the entire movie that elements don’t mix, but without giving a specific reason for it. Not to mention there’s this tension between the water beings and the fire people in the district of Fire Town, amounting to points where characters even call each other the element-equivalent of an ethnic slur (eg. Gale calls Ember a ‘fireball’ in a moment of high tension), so the least the movie should do is dig a little deeper into its ideas about race relations than it actually does. 

It’s also worth noting that the air and earth districts are barely explored, and the element-based puns fall flat more than they land, such as when Wade tells Ember shortly after their first encounter that she’s “smokin’” (because you know, she’s made of fire!) But Elemental is more funny when the jokes are visual gags centered around the characters, like when an air bubble suddenly pops from Wade’s head to which he declares a thought bubble, and when Fern is forced to leave his office early after a protest from Ember accidentally robs him of all his leaves.

Elemental isn’t on the level of the masterworks Pixar has made over the years, but even mid-tier work from the prolific animation studio evokes more imagination and wonder than other movies playing in theaters this summer, and at 103 minutes, the film is a breezy, captivating adventure. Audiences will be enthralled by the beauty of Element City, endeared to the characters of Ember and Wade, and be entertained by where their relationship takes them from beginning to end. If you’re looking for something to take the kids to and they’ve already been across the Spider-Verse, brave the elements and check out Elemental.


RATING: ★★★1/2

(out of five stars)