The bar is always set exceptionally high when you hear the word "Pixar." The animation studio has of course given us some of the very best movies - animated or otherwise - that have been made over the last 3 decades.
With that framing in mind, "Elemental" isn't among the very best of Pixar. But it is the sort of movie that we frankly need more of.
I happened to really enjoy "Elemental," for what it is and also for what it was trying to be. Some of its themes - like the appreciation and understanding of other cultures - have been done better elsewhere. "Zootopia" comes to mind, as a superior film that tackled a lot of the same issues. But "Elemental" felt inclusive in ways that other films don't. I thought it had the potential to be great, even if it didn't quite hit that high mark.
As Pixar is famous for doing, an intricate world is built and imagined. In "Elemental," four different types of creatures co-exist: You have the fire-people, the water-people, the land-people and the wind-people. In the vast cities, we see all of these kinds mixing, dealing in commerce and cohabitating. But there are also - "districts" we'll call them - where you don't want to find yourself going if you are not of that elemental make-up.
The story follows a "fire family" made up of dad Bernie (Ronnie Del Carmen) and his wife Cinder (Shila Ommi). Like many immigrant stories, they flee their homeland for a better life in an unknown world (even their names are given to them by an "immigration" officer who can't understand their native tongue). Bernie sets up a shop where he sells goods to other fire-people, and he makes an honest living running his store, while Cinder operates her "psychic" readings in the backroom. Over time, the community grows. Think "Chinatown" or "Little Italy," as in a lower-class urban area where only one "minority" populates.
Bernie and Cinder eventually have a daughter, Ember (Leah Lewis) who is being groomed to take over the family business. But Ember isn't sure that her father's version of her future matches her own. Worse, Ember's horrible temper continuously gets in the way, leaving all of the family with doubts as to if Ember is even capable of running the store.
After a major mishap takes place on a day where Ember tried her hand at running things, she meets a water-person, Wade (Mamoudou Athie), a health inspector who ends up writing up the fire-family's store for multiple violations. There seems to be larger things going on in the city that could prove disastrous to all elements, but in the short-term, the violations could lead to Bernie's store getting shut down...and in her mind, it's all because of Ember.
"Elemental" isn't as funny as you might expect, but it has big things on its mind. The animation style too, while brilliant to look at, doesn't give you the fell of big, fuzzy and inviting characters like we're maybe used to. Many of the themes - especially dealing with the parents struggle as immigrants - will fly a mile high over the heads of young kids. But it's colorful and hopeful. And it contains a lot of great lessons, even if not all of them are cleanly executed.
The journey of discovery that Wade and Ember have is meaningful, and it feels more timely than most other Pixar efforts. Here are two people - one made of fire and one made of water - who have been told that they simply cannot mix. They are afraid to touch one another. They may have to overcome some of the cultural barriers that have been placed in front of them if they are to eventually be together, but they learn that these challenges are not insurmountable.
Other than Catherine O'Hara and Wendi McLendon-Covey who both give voices to bit characters in the film, "Elemental" is not chock-full of A-list voice talent. It isn't trying to sell toys, or lead to a theme park experience. It's a story-first film about some incredibly important topics. It feels a bit disjointed and long in the middle but I felt it delivered with its impactful final stretch.
Not to be overlooked, it's optimistic and devoid of cynicism. It manages to deliver complex emotional themes in simple terms. These are quite the rarity these days in films aimed at families.
In that way, "Elemental" feels equivalent to maybe an independent movie trying to exist in a sea of tentpole blockbusters...small in comparison but in many ways much more vital. There needs to be more movies like "Elemental," not less, and for that reason, I have no hesitations in championing it.
Genre: Animation, Adventure, Comedy.
Run Time: 1 hour 43 minutes.
Starring (voices of): Leah Lewis, Mamoudou Athie, Catherine O'Hara, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Ronnie Del Carmen, Shila Ommi.
Directed by Peter Sohn ("The Good Dinosaur").
"Elemental" is in theaters on Friday, June 16th, 2023.
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