We review Pixar’s good-natured new movie Elemental, which may not be their best film, but is better than recent work.
PLOT: In a world where the elements, fire, earth, air, and water live together, a young fire element, Ember (Leah Lewis), crosses paths with a clumsy water element, Wade (Mamoudou Athie) and the two, to their surprise, find that sometimes opposite elements attract.
REVIEW: Pixar’s recent run of movies has been largely met with a shrug from fans. The road back to the big screen after the pandemic has been rocky for the studio’s films. Turning Red was pretty good, but it only got a little attention due to becoming a Disney Plus exclusive, and their previous film, Luca, might be the most obscure film the studio’s ever produced. Lightyear was supposed to be the company’s triumphant return to the big screen, but it felt like just another sci-fi/adventure movie.
Elemental aims to be different. In classic Pixar tradition, it focuses on emotion and characterization to tell a meaningful story rather than pure spectacle. It also sports some of the most technically impressive animation we’ve seen in a while, with the team of animators doing a brilliant job animating fire and water in a way that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.
Is Elemental one of the best Pixar movies? I wouldn’t go that far, but it is bound to be recognized sometime down the road as one of their most underrated efforts. The film was meant with middling reviews out of Cannes, but it was way too sunny and optimistic to work for such a notoriously cynical audience. It’s a light, ninety-minute animated rom-com that tells a sweet story and wants to send you out of the theatre with a smile on your face. It’s not genre-defining like the best Pixar movies from their insane early 2000s run, but it’s a sweet, gentle film.
Director Peter Sohn, who made The Good Dinosaur (and also stole scenes voicing Sox in Lightyear), does a great job creating a whole world for his characters in Elemental. The idea here is that Element City was settled by water, with air and earth coming in shortly after and fire being relatively new to the city. Thus, much of Element City emphasizes water, which, of course, is something that doesn’t mix too well with fire, leaving them to settle their own patches of the city.
The movie is, essentially, a metaphor for the immigrant experience, with our heroine, Ember, looking to establish herself in Element City despite her father’s wish that she stay in the fire-dominated part of the city to take over his store, The Fireplace. Most of Pixar’s best movies have been metaphorical in some ways, but like them, Elemental never gets too heavy-handed, and Sohn’s sunny optimism never wavers. Zootopia, which is similar, confronted prejudice head-on, but that kind of thing doesn’t exist in Element City. Water and the other elements mean well.
At its heart, Elemental is a rom-com, which, oddly enough, is a rare thing these days. Leah Lewis and Mamoudou Athie (who was great in the Netflix movie Uncorked) have good chemistry, and there’s a sweetness to their tentative romance that hasn’t been seen in a mainstream movie in too long. Sometimes you almost forget you’re watching animation as the two characters feel alive. However, at a certain point, you realize this is a nice movie but perhaps not as resonant as their best work. It’s sweet and entertaining in the same way Onward is, meaning it’s second-tier Pixar – below the classics like Wall-E and Up, but far above any of the Cars movies, Elio, Lightyear, etc.
Will that be enough to win viewers back to theatres? That remains to be seen, but for rock-solid family entertainment, or even a date night movie, Elemental is well worth a watch on the big screen, especially in its immersive 3D format, which, sadly, the press didn’t see – although I did see a chunk of it that way and it was a sight to behold. It gives the movie more oomph than you’ll get on the small screen. As an aside I should also mention the movie comes with a short epilogue to Up, Carl’s Date, which is worth the price of admission alone and is an example of the studio at their very best.
Originally published at https://www.joblo.com/elemental-review/