When the previews for Pixar’s latest film landed, people seemed to dwell on the familiar elements (pun intended). It’s Inside Out, but with elements! It’s Zootopia, but with elements! What the previews don’t delve into are the fresh factors that make Elemental one of Pixar’s best recent offerings. It’s a touching story about immigration, generational gaps, and mixed couples. This is Pixar’s most fleshed-out romance since WALL-E, although ironically in both cases, none of the characters have flesh. Even if some elements don’t stray far from Pixar’s brand, they’re executed with more wit and creativity than most of us are capable of producing. The film encourages audiences not to judge a book by its cover, which applies to anyone who felt underwhelmed by the ads.
After the not-so-great The Good Dinosaur, director Peter Sohn delivers a superior sophomore outing with Elemental. Sohn injects much of his personal life into Ember Lumen (Leah Lewis), a sentient flame whose parents immigrated to Element City when she was but a spark. Upon arriving, the Lumens are essentially the only fire elements in a city dominated by water, earth, and air. The fire community gradually grows into a Chinatown-esque neighborhood. Despite the fiery population, it’s still a splash zone with unwelcome water washing up. It’s reminiscent of the flood scene in Parasite with a clear contrast between classes. Ember nonetheless finds herself drawn to a sensitive water element named Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie).
Elemental puts more emphasis on fire and water with the two other elements somewhat underutilized. If you’re going to tell an opposites attract romance, though, it makes sense to focus on a hotheaded flame and a teary-eyed droplet. The water and fire people also possess the most visually interesting designs, making for something truly mesmerizing when Ember and Wade finally touch. While the leads share a natural chemistry, Elemental goes beyond being a straightforward rom-com. It’s just as much a love letter to parents who traveled across the world to give their children and future generations better lives. Ember’s aging father (Ronnie del Carmen) harbors a prejudice against water folks. Realizing the sacrifices her parents have made, Ember aspires to do right by them, even if it counters what her heart tells her.
At times, the elemental-based puns can be a bit on the nose. Some adults might say the same about the film’s real-world parallels, although the metaphors are presented cleverly for younger audiences. Like Turning Red, kids will enjoy Elemental, but when revisiting the film years later, they’re bound to say, “Oh, now I get it.” The commentary may be more obvious for adults, but the characters will draw in viewers of all ages. In one scene, Ember and Wade play the crying game (no relation to the 1992 film). Ember is convinced that she can keep it together, but Wade gets to her with a sincere declaration of love. This sums up the film in a nutshell, turning cynics with folded arms into blubbering puddles.
As fantastical as the environment is, Elemental is a very human story. Admittedly, the film loses some relatability during an obligatory action climax, although even that manages to stick the landing. If Elemental has a legitimate downside, it’s that there are too many inspired ideas for one film to contain. We spend most of the movie in the city, but there’s a whole world that could be elaborated on. Hopefully we get to further explore this world in a sequel, series, or even a short. It’s hard to say how Elemental will perform in what seems to be a transitional period for Pixar. Even if it’s a slow burn, the reception toward Elemental should eventually be flaming hot. Just don’t wait to discover it on Disney+. See it on the big screen, preferably with a date or your parents.