10th Jul2023

‘Elemental’ Review

by Matthew Turner

Features the voices of: Leah Lewis, Mamoudou Athie, Ronnie del Carmen, Shila Ommi, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Catherine O’Hara, Mason Wertheimer, Joe Pera | Written by John Hoberg, Kat Likkel, Brenda Hsueh | Directed by Peter Sohn

Directed by Peter Sohn (The Good Dinosaur), Elemental is the 27th film from animation studio Pixar, whose films are so reliably emotional that they might as well come with a will-make-you-cry guarantee. True to form, Elemental sticks closely to the Pixar formula, mixing a high concept with a strong central metaphor to tell an extremely sweet love story that’s certain to make you shed a tear or two.

Many of Pixar’s films essentially ask, ‘What if such-and-such a thing had feelings and emotions?”, whether it’s toys in Toy Story or emotions themselves in Inside Out (still one of Pixar’s best). This time round, that concept applies to the elements, namely fire, water, earth and air, who are all anthropomorphised here and live together in a very New York-like Element City, with the fact that there are different districts for each element clearly highlighting the underlying immigrant story metaphor.

The central character is hot-tempered fire girl Ember (Leah Lewis), who helps run a shop owned by her immigrant parents Ernie (Ronnie Del Carmen) and Cinder (Shila Ommi). One day her latest explosion bursts a pipe in their basement, which brings teary blue water guy Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie) into her life.

Initially, the pair are forced to work together to fix the fire district’s flooding problem, and in the process, they fall in love, even though the fire people mantra is that fire and water don’t mix. In turn, the relationship inspires Ember to follow her own creative path (she can create glass sculptures), which potentially sets her at odds with her parents, who are expecting her to take over the family business.

Director Peter Sohn was born to Korean immigrant parents and married someone outside of Korean culture, so there’s an element (no pun intended) to the immigrant experience metaphor that feels authentic and truthful, rather than just developed by committee. What’s interesting is that the romance is allowed to be the absolute centre of the story – there’s no significant antagonist and even the threat to the fire district, while providing tension and action, isn’t the main focus of the film.

It goes without saying at this stage for a Pixar movie, but the animation is utterly stunning throughout, and what the production design lacks in imagination (Elemental essentially a tweaked version of Disney’s Zootopia), it more than makes up for in its use of gorgeous colour – indeed, it might just be Pixar’s most beautiful movie to date. A particular highlight in this regard is the scene where Ember changes colour multiple times while on a date with Wade.

In addition, the script is packed with a series of great gags, both visual and verbal, with plenty of imaginative jokes that take full advantage of the central concept, such as Wade’s family playing a game where they try and make each other cry, or Ember’s dad feeding Wade hot, spicy food to try and intimidate him. On top of that, Sohn orchestrates some splendid set pieces, the highlight of which is a romantic underwater date whose winning charm overrides the fact that the sequence requires a little suspension of disbelief.

Pixar also deserve points when it comes to the casting, because they have eschewed big-name celebrities, content to let their talented, ethnically diverse voice cast shine in the roles. Consequently, Lewis is delightful as hot-headed Ember, sparking genuine romantic chemistry with Mamoudou Athie’s charming and sweet Wade.

In short, while it’s fair to say that the overall concept isn’t as strong or as well thought out as in previous Pixar movies (Earth and Air barely get a look-in, for example), but Elemental is still a very sweet, sensitively coded interracial romance with a warm, beating heart at its centre. And yes, you’re guaranteed to shed a tear or two.

**** 4/5

Elemental is in cinemas now.


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