VERDICT: Visual delights, a sweet love story, and that potent Pixar sentimentality carry this animated feature past a periodic table’s worth of script flaws.
“I could vaporize you! You could extinguish me!” The stakes are always high when two people enter into a passionate romance, but in Elemental, those threats are quite literal: Ember (voiced by Leah Lewis, The Half of It) is a walking ball of fire while her potential new boyfriend Wade (Mamoudou Athie, Jurassic World: Dominion) is a being made entirely of water.
They’re not atypical of Element City, whose uneasily coexisting residents include not only fire- and water-people, but also sentient clouds and plants. The set-up allows for any number of metaphors about class, race, and national origin, but Elemental will work best for viewers who don’t ask too many questions about Element City but instead focus on the love story and the child-of-immigrants saga being spun here.
Ember is the daughter of Bernie (Ronnie Del Carmen) and Cinder (Shila Ommi); they were renamed at the Element City equivalent of Ellis Island when they emigrated from the “old country” of Fireland to make a new life for themselves and their family.
In Element City, the fire-people face discrimination, with Bernie and Cinder having countless apartment doors slammed in their face before they take over an old building to open a shop dedicated to Fireland delicacies. The Firetown neighborhood springs to life around them, and young Ember dreams of one day taking over the store herself.
Once she becomes an adult, however, Ember discovers that the demands of retail constantly trigger her fiery temper; one such explosion bursts the pipes in the basement. The subsequent flood brings in city inspector Wade, who gets sucked into the waterways from a canal he’d been inspecting.
(The water people can do anything water does, including getting trapped in a sponge, while still maintaining their form and consciousness.) Ember tries to convince Wade and his higher-ups not to close her father’s store, and the more time the two spend together, the more these opposites find each other irresistible.
Wade tends to burst into tears at the slightest display of emotion or sentimentality, and audiences who are susceptible to Pixar’s brand of tear-jerking may find themselves wet-faced as well, from the ups and downs of Ember and Wade’s relationship to Ember’s desire to honor the sacrifices of her immigrant parents while also seeking to find her way in the world. These plot threads are so engaging and satisfying that it’s easy to forgive Elemental’s half-hearted world-building.
Why one city where these varying elements interact? Why set up the potential flooding of Firetown as a plot point without developing why it’s happening? (Is it a conspiracy? Poor city planning as a metaphor for the environmental risks faced by low-income communities? The movie never slows down enough to explore either notion.)
And what’s the separation between the elements and the element people? What, for instance, differentiates Wade and his family from the water that flows through the city? (And for that matter, does the wood being consumed by fire people come from the tree people, or from other trees that are somehow non-sentient?)
It’s enough to make your head spin, in a bad way, but thankfully Elemental offers the good kind of head-spinning with a dazzling visual palette, from the simple yet intricate character design (Wade’s watery body reflects delicate prisms, and the waves of his hair regularly crest and ebb) to a dazzling sequence involving Ember and Wade’s visit to see a rare plant that can exist amidst all the elements.
Thomas Newman’s sweet score — and the catchy original composition “Steal the Show,” performed by Lauv — go a long way to enhance the film’s emotional beats, and the voice acting (Catherine O’Hara and Wendi McClendon-Covey pop up in memorable supporting roles) is uniformly terrific. Athie’s Wade is a bit of an aimless dork at first, but the character’s adoration and support of Ember builds throughout, with Lewis matching him in expressing both conflict and affection.
Elemental’s end credits offer one last heart-tugger, and before the movie even starts, get ready for a tear-ducts warm-up with Carl’s Date, a Pixar short subject featuring characters from Up (and a voice performance from the late, great Ed Asner).
- Director: Peter Sohn
- Screenwriters: John Hoberg & Kat Likkel and Brenda Hsueh
- Cast: Leah Lewis, Mamoudou Athie, Ronnie del Carmen, Shila Ommi, Wendi McClendon-Covey, Catherine O’Hara, Mason Wertheimer, Joe Pera
- Producer: Denise Ream
- Executive producer: Pete Docter
- Production design: Don Shank
- Directors of photography: David Juan Bianchi, Jean-Claude Kalache
- Editing: Stephen Schaffer
- Music: Thomas Newman
- Sound: Ren Klyce, sound designer
- Production companies: Disney/Pixar
- In English, 103 minutes