In theaters on June 16th, ‘Elemental’ is the 27th feature film produced by the Disney-owned Pixar Animation Studios, and while it has its charms, it comes across more as a technically accomplished animated effort than a truly satisfying all-round night at the movies.
Pixar could really use a big theatrical hit. After Disney shoved the otherwise excellent ‘Soul’ and ‘Turning Red’ either entirely on to Disney+ or in the case of the latter, on limited cinematic release where it lost money despite positive reviews before going to streaming, the company’s much-vaunted return to big screens was last year’s ‘Lightyear’.
Yet Despite the connection to the ‘Toy Story’ movies, it flopped badly enough that some of the people involved have recently been let go as part of overarching Disney cost-cutting maneuvers.
Which naturally puts a lot of pressure on ‘Elemental’, the latest film to emerge from the company and directed by Peter Sohn, who knows a little bit about problematic Pixar movies having last made ‘The Good Dinosaur’, which earned decent reviews but didn’t connect with cinemagoers on a scale that the company might have preferred.
What’s the story for ‘Elemental’?
‘Elemental’ introduces us to Element City, a sprawling, fantastical metropolis where different elements –– Land, Air, Water and, more, recently Fire –– have settled in relative harmony. It’s to this world that Bernie (Ronnie Del Carmen) and Cinder (Shila Ommi) Lumen arrive from the land of Fire to start a new life with their unborn daughter.
Years later, that child, Ember (Leah Lewis) has grown into an impulsive young woman, one that her father hopes will one day soon inherit the shop he runs in the fire quarter. But Ember runs hot –– she has a burning temper than gets her into trouble with customers, and while she’s trying to be a loyal daughter, she’s not even totally convinced she wants to take over the family business.
When Ember accidentally meets city inspector Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie) she initially takes against the nervy, curious and kind water element, but circumstances keep pushing them together and they soon realize they could have serious chemistry.
Yet with the fire quarter under threat from water leaks and the pressure of family getting in the way, will these two unlikely friends –– and potentially more –– be able to let off some steam?
Who else voices characters in ‘Elemental’?
‘Elemental’s voice cast also includes Catherine O’Hara as Brook Ripple, Wade’s mother, Wendi McLendon-Covey as his boss, Gale and Mason Wertheimer as Clod, a youthful land element with a crush on Ember.
While ‘Elemental’ doesn’t channel the same level of emotional storytelling power as some of Pixar’s biggest hits (the team mining buddy comedies in particular for some fantastically entertaining and relatable narratives), it does feature two compelling lead characters.
Ember’s background –– or more specifically her parents’ –– is rooted in the immigrant story, hitting the beats of disappointed elders from different generations well and even featuring a knowing nod to language barriers (Ember’s mother and father are given their names when their original monikers prove too tough for a land element immigration officer to pronounce).
Despite its seemingly utopian feel, Element City also faces issues between elements (the fire people in particular are seen as dangerous, while Ember’s father has an understandable beef with water).
The opposites attracting aspect has powered Pixar movies since the start, though here the love story nature of the main pairing gives an extra layer to it. Lewis, and particularly Athie, bring real personality to their characters, yet the actual tale around them often comes across as less bespoke and more straight from the rack. Despite its immigration colors, the clash of cultures and emotional journey is a lot more basic than some previous films. And before you argue “it’s a kids’ movie”, Pixar has never aimed for just one audience. The likes of ‘Inside Out’ have tackled huge topics in interesting ways while also providing knockabout fun.
And yes, it’s also technically impressive, which is something we’ve all come to expect from the studio, here pushing the limits of characters made out of different elements. Element City is typically bursting with fun ideas, versions of real-world architecture, signage, transportation and other. It’s just unfortunate that the film should arrive two weeks after ‘Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse’ which manages to cram in dazzling, dynamic and different animation styles while also not neglecting the emotional core of its adventure.
There are logic bumps here and there too –– it’s a common idea in animated movies to have the city named after characters, and a relatable concept, but human cities don’t tend to work that way –– no one lives in Homo Sapienburg.
This is far from a bad film, though –– just a little more generic in places than some of its stablemates and it may suffer in terms of rewatchability for that.
Finally, ‘Elemental’ arrives in theaters with a new short set in the world of ‘Up’. ‘Carl’s Date’ is bursting with gentle humor and reminds us exactly why audiences fell in love with cranky pensioner Carl (Ed Asner) and chatty, excitable dog Dug (Bob Peterson, who also writes and directs the piece). Following the widower as he nervously tries to figure out what to do on his first date in decades, it’s a lovely chance to check-in with the characters and boasts more warm laughs from Dug.
It’s almost a mistake to run this before the feature, since it harkens back to a time when Pixar could break our hearts with one four-minute, dialogue-free montage. While nothing in ‘Carl’s Date’ carries that sort of power, neither does ‘Elemental’.
Yet the latest Pixar film at least carries more invention and originality than ‘Lightyear’ and is worthy of engaging audiences, even if its surface is more polished than its heart is full.
‘Elemental’ receives 6.5 out of 10 stars.
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‘Elemental’ is produced by Walt Disney Pictures and Pixar. It is set to release in theaters on June 16th, 2023.