Fire and water (and earth and air) mix it up in Disney/Pixar's Elemental
Since their first movie in 1995, Toy Story, the minds at Pixar have tended to think outside of the box with their stories. Bugs, monsters, cars, fish, a rat who can cook, post-apocalyptic robots, and feelings have all been the protagonists in their films. For their 27th movie, they’re once again going abstract and personifying earth elements to tell a unique-yet-familiar story.
Elementalfocuses on Ember Lumen (Leah Lewis), a young woman living with her immigrant family in the Fire section of Element City. Water people seem to be the dominant force in the city, with most methods of travel involving water in way or another. Earth and air people occupy their own particular places, with a sport called Air Ball involving air athletes especially popular among all residents.
When Ember, who has trouble controlling her temper, causes an accident that breaks some water pipes, city inspector Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie) enters her life. Desperate to keep her family’s business from flaming out, Ember keeps bugging Wade to help her. Soon, they discover an unexpected spark between them, but can a relationship between fire and water actually work?
Directed by Peter Sohn and written by John Hoberg, Kat Likkel, and Brenda Hseuh, the film is mostly an allegory about the immigrant experience. Ember’s parents, who are given the new names of Bernie (Ronnie Del Carmen) and Cinder (Shila Ommi) when they emigrate to Element City, help to originate the Fire section of the city, and expect Ember to take over their business when they retire. The fear that Fire people bring up in the other elements is palpable, and plays a big part in their segregation.
It unexpectedly takes a long time to get to the romantic portion of the film, and when it does it’s not exactly Romeo and Juliet. While Ember feels a need to hide the relationship, Wade’s family, including mom Brook (Catherine O’Hara), welcomes her with open arms. The filmmakers do an effective job of building to a point of inevitability, and the payoff works especially well because of this slow-walk.
It does take a lot of getting used to how the different elements interact with the world around them, especially since elements exist as both people and everything around them. There are naturally lots of jokes about what happens when one element touches another, and viewers likely won’t catch half of the clever aspects the first time around.
The voicework is solid, with the lack of big stars a positive for taking the characters at face value. The design of the characters is somewhat unusual but still pleasing, and the rest of the animation is typically great, with some portions coming as close to photo-realistic as Pixar as ever achieved.
While falling short of the top tier films that Pixar has put out, Elemental is still a fun and engaging story that will likely be appreciated more upon repeat viewings. Fire and water don’t typically mix, but in the hands of a movie studio like this, they find a way.
Elemental opens in theaters on June 16.