We all have a general idea of what to expect when we watch a Pixar movie, right? They pioneered 3D animation, after all. But they also made insightful humor and emotion part of their trademark. Even the least successful films from Pixar can at least claim to entertain. Elemental accomplishes more than that. It is touching and sweet, thanks to a story that feels intensely personal, and the animation is striking.
In Elemental, the four elements– earth, water, fire, and air– can all come to live in Element City. Pixar has personified toys, vehicles, monsters, and even emotions, so this is well within their wheelhouse. Ember (Leah Lewis) is a young Fire woman who has always worked in her father’s shop and plans to take over running it soon. She meets Water guy Wade (Mamoudou Athie) when he accidentally bursts through the pipes in the basement of the shop. Fire and water obviously aren’t supposed to mix but circumstances force them to spend time together.
Though this film doesn’t quite reach the heights of Pixar’s masterpieces like Toy Story or WALL-E, Elemental does have something important to say. And it does so with beautiful animation.
“Why does anyone else get to tell you what to do with your life?”
The effective visuals start from the beginning of this film, as we see Ember’s parents sail to Element City. The design of the city is really well done. It’s a layered blend of futuristic and classic. The theme of immigration is also established at this early point, and when Ember reaches adulthood, her desire to please her parents is clear.
The store is so important to her father that taking over for him is the goal that drives Ember’s every decision. And the stress of trying to be ready to take over brings out her temper. In fact, it is one of her combustive outbursts that causes Wade to be trapped in the pipes to begin with. Unfortunately, he is a building inspector and has to give the store so many citations that it might be shut down.
This is when Ember and Wade get to know each other. They work together to find the source of a dangerous water leak so that Wade’s boss will forgive the citations. Wade is interested long before Ember even allows herself to think about anything else. They meet each other’s families and connect over things like Ember’s talent for glass blowing. It’s quite sweet.
“We changed each other’s chemistry.”
That is what is most unique about this film. It is Pixar’s first significant attempt at a central love story, and it works well for me. There are several memorable romantic moments. All Water people are represented as quick to cry, and Wade is no different, so his heart is on his sleeve. Whether it’s a meaningful conversation at sunset or the moment when they figure out they can touch, the romance is effective.
This plot is balanced by the family storyline. Ember has simply never questioned what her future would be and Wade encourages her to do that. Many viewers will be able to relate to Ember’s need to make her father proud and honor his hard work. But the “forbidden romance” trope has been overused. It’s too familiar to feel fresh, and that’s not a problem Pixar has very often.
Another thing I noticed was that this film doesn’t have as much clever laugh-out-loud humor as Pixar usually delivers. There are definitely funny moments but compared with the studio’s other work, it is less of a comedy. In contrast, the emotion Pixar is also known for appears here in a big way. I won’t spoil anything but you’ll want tissues for the sad and happy tears. That’s why Elemental is a strong though not solid entry in the Pixar canon.
4 stars out of 5
Elemental is now in theaters.