June 16, 2023 / Disney Studios Canada
Leah Lewis, Mamoudou Athie, Ronnie del Carmen, Shila Ommi,
Wendi McLendon-Covey, Catherine O'Hara, Mason Wertheimer, Joe Pera
Set in Element City, where fire-, water-, land- and air-residents live together, the story introduces Ember, a tough, quick-witted and fiery young woman, whose friendship with a fun, sappy, go-with-the-flow guy named Wade challenges her beliefs about the world they live in.
Written By Darren
Rating 3 out of 5
Elemental lives up to the Pixar standard of gorgeous animation that transports viewers to a wondrous world, and thought the film is full of potential with a strong voice cast and great themes that are touched upon, the story fails to pull everything together and makes the emotion feel forced at times rather than the usual Pixar magic audiences are used to.
When it comes to animation, Pixar is synonymous with greatness having created some of the most beloved animated films of all time from the Toy Story films, The Incredibles, Up and Coco. In terms of storytelling, Pixar is always trying something new and introducing audiences to wonderous new worlds and characters, relying on the studio’s brand recognition to get audiences out to the theater. And while their latest film, Elemental, has the right concept and themes to make for another hit for this legendary animated studio, the execution does not fully realize the story’s potential. It left me wanting so much more and for only fleeting moments experiencing that Pixar magic that makes them my favourite animated studio.
Set in a world inhabited by the elements, air, earth, fire and water, Elemental tells the story of Ember and Wade. Ember, a fire person, lives with her immigrant family and helps her father run the family business, longing to make her own path in life. But when a pipe bursts in her family’s home and threatens to destroy their business, Ember must team up with Wade, the local city inspector who is also a water person, to discover the source of water in Firetown and save her family business.
Pixar has never been a studio to shy away from themes about family, legacy and culture, and all these themes are present once again in Elemental. Through Ember’s family, the writers of the film explore the immigrant experience, the desire to create something and make a better life for their family while honouring their culture and legacy. Then, with the prejudice towards fire people that is explored through the blossoming romance between Ember and Wade, we see themes of persecution and racism touched upon, while acceptance of different cultures and ways of life is embraced in the story’s second half. It feels very West Side Story in the romantic plotline, and while the film focuses on these themes, there is a spark to the film. The romance plays out like a romantic comedy at times, while the themes of family and legacy give substance to the story. Despite its heavy handed delivery of the themes, it is easy to admire the discussion happening in Elemental even if it feels like a knock off of Zooptopia that merely substitutes animals for elements.
However, these themes are dampened by the film’s main story: a leak of water threatening to destroy Firetown. Whenever the main plot is at play, the film loses all momentum and that Pixar magic dissipates as a generic plot plays out that fails to grasp the larger story at play. Sure, there are some fun comedic moments to lighten up the film, but when the film is not focusing on it’s main themes, it's a drag to get through, causing the audience to feel the long run time. The uninspired main plot forces the emotions of the film, preventing it from naturally developing and creating that signature Pixar gut punch that normally reduces audiences of grown adults to a blubbery mess. The end result is a film that can be described as “cute”, but not one that is insightful enough for adult audiences nor entertaining enough to sustain younger viewers’ attention considering the longer run time. While it’s not Pixar’s worst film by any means, it is easily one of their most disappointing films to date as it never reaches its full potential and can easily be classified as a one time watch.
From a visual standpoint, the film is stunning from start to finish. As with all of their films, the animation is top notch and the world building is miraculous. Distinguishing itself from other Pixar films is the unique animation styles to bring to life the fire and water people in the film. The water people have a natural fluidity in the three dimensional animation style, while the hybrid two and three dimensional animation style for the fire people pops off the screen, helping build the differences between the residents of Element City which visually support the themes being explored. Purely focusing on the animation, the film is phenomenal enough to get Elemental a nomination for Best Animated Film this year at the Academy Awards, even if it is nowhere near as good of an overall film as some of the other animated films to be released so far this year.
Helping to bring the film to life are the spirited lead voice performances of Leah Lewis and Mamoudou Athie as Ember and Wade respectively. Both of them dazzle throughout the film, capturing the nuances of their characters’ arcs over the course of the film. Lewis has a fire to her that captures Ember’s passion and frustration of feeling chained to her family’s store, while Athie has the sentimentality to bring Wade’s playful and caring nature to life. As a duo, the sparks fly between Lewis and Athie, creating one of the more memorable romances between two Pixar characters in a while, slowly fanning the flame that is the blossoming romance between Ember and Wade. While the film is largely focused on Wade and Ember, Wendi McLendon-Covey and Catherine O’Hara have two scene stealing supporting performances as Wade’s boss Gale and mother Brook respectively, capturing an excitement and energy as large as the vision for this film.
I hate to say it, but the true standout of the film was the animated short Carl’s Date that played before the main feature began. Even though it was only about five minutes in length, the wonderful return of Carl and Dug from Pixar’s Up and the emotional whirlwind of Carl preparing for his first date since Ellie’s passing was an emotional rollercoaster. It hit all the right notes and left me deeply moved by the simple and heartfelt exploration of grief and love the short had to offer, that even the smallest sampling of Michael Giacchino’s award winning score had the tears flowing.
There is lots to admire about Elemental, showcasing what Pixar does best in so many aspects. However, as great as the animation, exploration of the story’s themes and the voice performances are, they are disrupted by an underdeveloped story that fails to find the heart that Pixar films are usually overflowing with. Despite the timely exploration of family, culture and legacy that has the potential to create a compelling story when combined with the stellar voice performances of Leah Lewis and Mamoudou Athie, Elemental struggles to burn bright as a bland main plotline prevents the rich themes from reaching their full potential and the film from being the standard slam dunk that audiences are used to seeing from Pixar.