Elemental review: Not top-tier Pixar, but it’s plenty heartfelt
The new film from the beloved animation studio is set in a fantasy world, where characters embody one of the four elements.
In Pixar’s landmark animation Inside Out, the studio smartly personified emotions. In Soul, they explored the inner essence of a human being. Now it’s the turn of the elements: fire, water, air and earth. Directed by Peter Sohn (2015’s The Good Dinosaur), Elemental is all set in a fantasy world, where characters embody one of the four elements. When we first arrive at Element City, the ‘water’ people all emerge from the Salty Sea yellow submarine (surely a Beatles reference?). The ‘Earth’ people all look like talking trees (though sadly, there was no cameo from Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy character Groot). And the ‘air’ people are wispy clouds.
The main focus, however, is a family of ‘fire’ people, the Lumens. Named by the immigration officer when they first arrive, Bernie (voiced by Ronnie Del Carmen) and Cinder (Shila Ommi) live in ‘Fire Town’, across the bridge from the main city. That teaming metropolis we soon learn isn’t really built for people like them, who, being flame-like, have a tendency to accidentally set things ablaze. Opening up their own shop selling fire-related goods, they also have a young daughter, Ember (Leah Lewis), whom Bernie hopes will one day carry on his good work, serving customers.
When the story moves on a few years, Ember is now ready to take over the store, but almost immediately, her fiery temper gets the better of her (shouting at one person, who only wants the ‘free’ one of the ‘buy one, get one free’ offer on sparklers). Worse still, her explosive temperament causes issues in the basement, springing leaks in the pipework. At this point, she meets Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie), a junior City Inspector. One of the ‘water’ people, he’s somehow been sucked through the pipes and into their downstairs. He’s all set to give them citations for various infringements, which will see the shop closed down, but this soppy (or sopping wet) fellow soon falls for Ember.
While it’s not exactly Romeo and Juliet, the idea of two star-crossed lovers from very different backgrounds is what drives Elemental, as Ember and Wade figure out if fire and water can ever mix. Ember also learns how to forge her own path, with a little help from Wade’s mother, who encourages her to explore her skill at glassblowing. Naturally, the script is as smartly-engineered as we’ve come to expect from the Pixar stable, with plenty of gags and references. Even ‘Ghibli’, alluding to the Japanese animation house, gets a shout-out.
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There are some lovely moments in the film too. When Ember and Wade explore the city, she leaps over a stretch of water, creating a rainbow after she steps on various coloured minerals with her fiery being, while he skids on the water underneath forging a water display. It’s a simple touch, but this is when Elemental is at its best. Yet, on the flip side, narratively, you’re left feeling slightly short-changed, by a film that runs at a lean 93 minutes. The environment of Element City itself, with its ‘Garden Central Station’, is only barely explored, for example.
The fundamental plot as Ember and Wade scoot around trying to plug leaks and perform other tasks isn’t that thrilling either, while the themes that Sohn and his writers set up concerning immigration are only examined in a cursory fashion. Maybe that’s asking too much of an animated film, but then Pixar’s standards are so high that Elemental feels, well, basic. That said, if you’re looking for a cute love story, with a very funny turn from Athie as Wade, then you’ll walk away content. It’s not top-tier Pixar, but it’s plenty heartfelt.