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‘Elemental’ review: Pixar at its most formulaic is still Pixar

By June 9, 2023No Comments4 min read
A photo still of Wade and Ember sitting in a movie theater in ELEMENTAL

Directed by Peter Sohn, Elemental is a steamy rom-com, imaginative immigrant story, and at times a Zootopia redux. It’s also far from Pixar’s best.

What if elements had feelings? Much of Elemental explores that parody of a Pixar movie with obvious visual cues, like when a fire “person” explodes when losing their temper, or when a water “person” incessantly cries waterfalls. So, essentially like Anger and Sadness in Inside Out. If it feels like we’ve already been here before with Disney’s oft-neglected Emeryville-based animation studio, perhaps it’s important to remember that these types of Pixar projects used to be second nature.

A lot has changed for Pixar, though, since the days of Cars and Finding Nemo, when audiences dove into hidden worlds they never imagined before. Since Onward hit theaters for only a week or so in 2020, recent Pixar movies have almost exclusively been straight-to-Disney+ streaming titles. The notable exception, of course, was last year’s Lightyear, which turned out to be one of their weakest films yet. Fortunately, Soul, Luca, and Turning Red marked a stellar run for the studio, assuming many people bothered to watch and enjoy them. That stellar run has faced at least one more interruption this year, but it’s not all bad news.

Wade and Ember walking down a sidewalk in ELEMENTAL

“Elements don’t mix.”

Elemental follows a family of anthropomorphic fire elements, the Lumens, who move to Element City to seek a better elemental life (the naming schemes and puns aren’t exactly creative hallmarks for the studio). When the Lumens first arrive at this NYC stand-in by way of Zootopia, they’re clearly foreign elements compared to the air, earth, and water elements already residing there. They’re met with plenty of side eyes and overt racism, pushing them to set up their own borough on the city’s outskirts. Their “fireplace” business is a bustling shop that caters to some of the other wandering fire elements that come into town, and the family’s patriarch, Bernie (voiced by longtime Pixar creative Ronnie del Carmen) wants to eventually hand the business over to his daughter Ember (Leah Lewis).

The problem is that Ember has a hard time dealing with other “people” at the shop. She gets mad quite easily, to the point where she almost wrecks the shop after bursting a few pipes. This ushers Wade (Mamoudou Athie) into the story, a city inspector who tries to help Ember save her shop from multiple code violations. Riveting stuff.

From there, the movie becomes an opposites-attract love story. Wade is attracted to Ember’s bright, energetic personality, and she’s drawn to his cool, go-with-the-flow ease, particularly in how he gets along so easily with others. There are a few other side characters stepping in from time to time, like an earth bureaucrat voiced by Joe Pera with far too few lines and of course members of Ember and Wade’s respective families. But this really is an exploration of how people from two different worlds can have a surprising amount of chemistry.

Gale, Ember, and Wade watch a sports game at Cyclone Stadium in ELEMENTAL

“My dad would boil you alive.”

There are some typical nuggets of light Pixar wisdom in Elemental, particularly when it comes to how emotional outbursts can be our body’s trying to tell us something. But when it comes to the movie’s social commentary on race, Elemental is elementary at best. The movie is far more enjoyable to experience in its technical expressions and general world-building. The filmmakers clearly spent a lot of their time focusing on how elements would actually interact with their environments if they were alive. When water elements do “the wave” at a sports game, they become a literal wave. Fire elements can create elaborate glass structures like they’re doing pottery. The art style varies between the elements themselves, giving the overall film layers of dimensions that make this world a thrill to explore for the movie’s breezy 110 minutes.

This is Peter Sohn’s directorial follow-up after his attempt to save The Good Dinosaur in 2015 with a last-minute revamp of the story. The only major, noticeable carryover from that movie into Elemental is the choice to make the environments close to photo-realistic, allowing for the more cartoonish elements to stand out in all their bright, vivid colors and sketchy profiles. It’s a bit more seamless this time around, maybe because the denizens of this world already look so dissimilar from one another, why not choose a more textured landscape for them to inhabit?

The bottom line.

I almost wish Elemental could’ve been a Pixar short, instead of a feature film. Less pressure, that way. The studio has always been a bit shy with romantic subplots, save for WALL-E and those opening minutes of Up that live in our heads rent-free. It’s a movie bursting with personality and enthusiasm, but it’s low on laughs and emotional gut punches. If this is Pixar going back to basics, that’s well and good. It’s still a Pixar movie. It’s still a cut above a lot of the other original features trying to build an audience out of new IP. But let’s be honest, Pixar itself is already an IP. It’s a brand. “Good enough” isn’t exactly that brand, and the diminishing returns when it comes to audience retention is real. If they don’t turn things around soon, they might get into some seriously hot water.

Elemental opens in theaters on June 16. Watch the trailer here.

Images courtesy of Disney/Pixar.

  • ELEMENTAL - 6.5/10
Jon Negroni

Jon is one of the co-founders of InBetweenDrafts and our resident film editor. He also hosts the podcasts Cinemaholics, Mad Men Men, and Rookie Pirate Radio. He doesn't sleep, essentially.

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