It’s true that the best days of Pixar may be behind us. From modern day classics like Up, Wall-E, and Ratatouille, to more mediocre fare like Lightyear and Onward, the studio has essentially gone from “great” to “okay” after more than 20 years.
Sure there are astonishing works of art among the recent films, such as Soul, Turning Red, or Inside Out. But overall, the track record simply isn’t untarnished. And as such, it’s a nice surprise whenever we get a wonderfully pleasant film, like Elemental in the mix.
Granted to compare the movie to the cream of the crop for the studio simply isn’t fair. But on the whole, Elemental really is a nice, simple movie with a lot of heart. It’s just not without its flaws.
When we consider Pixar today versus 2009, it’s a bit of a downgrade in some ways for the studio that used to clean house for the Best Animated Feature Oscar to simply settle for nominations. Especially after movies like Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse showed us all that Disney and Pixar don’t hold the only patent in creating emotional, beautiful-looking films of depth and substance. But that doesn’t mean they’re not churning out pleasant movies all the same. And that’s simply the best way to describe Elemental. It’s pleasant.
Elemental was inspired by director Peter Sohn’s (The Good Dinosaur) parents coming to America. In the movie, all the different elements (Earth, Fire, Wind, Water) live together in Element City. The story specifically follows the Lumen family — in particular Ember. Ember is primed to take over her family’s grocery store in the Fire Town, especially after everything that her parents sacrificed to establish the store and make a living for themselves. But unfortunately, her fake excitement is really a front for her desperation to please her parents after all they’ve done for her. And the bottled emotions take a toll on her as she begins to develop anger issues and resentment. Thankfully, a Water person named Wade comes into Ember’s life. Wade is so good with people, and an open book with his emotions. Little by little their relationship changes them as they learn that there is a world where opposites can truly attract, and honesty can change lives.
Like Wall–E, Elemental is actually a romance. And the relationship between Ember and Wade is sweet. Leah Lewis deserves an Annie for Voice-Over Performance for her role as Ember here. Her vocal performance is what truly transforms this animated character into something way more human. She’s lovable and real. Her frustrations but also her sincerity make Ember so relatable.
Mamoudou Athie’s performance as Wade is so hilarious. It’s a little more cartoony than Lewis’ but the character is written that way (I mean the character, as a Water person, cries every other scene). But their chemistry together works! And the romance is endearing. It’s rooted in the idea that these two characters can learn from one another. So you root for these characters to get together.
I will say, if I had one complaint about the romance, it’s that them getting together seemed a lot more convenient, and way more abbreviated than it should have. I suppose you can say the events and circumstances that lead to their affections for one another don’t feel earned or organic. So when one of the characters drops the “L” bomb after like three days of these characters knowing each other, I admittedly scoffed.
I realize Romeo and Juliet situations exist in stories, but this is the studio that also broke our hearts with the first, really realistic opening minutes of Up. Romance can be done well, and has been done well with Pixar. But it’s also because it was earned in Wall-E and between Ellie and Carl, or even Bob and Helen Parr. It just didn’t feel that way with Wade and Ember, despite the sweetness that Lewis and Athie imbue their characters with.
However, while the focus may be on the romance, to me, the soul and heart of this movie is with the relationship between Ember and her father Bernie (Pixar veteran Ronnie Del Carmen who is excellent in the role). This story, in my opinion, should have been the sole focus of the film, because, like Turning Red before it, the narrative dives into generational trauma in a profound but different way than in Red. In some way, that makes Elemental something of a spiritual sequel thematically to last year’s terrific film.
The way the movie discusses the pressure the Lumen family puts on Ember, but most importantly how much pressure she puts on herself because of how much she respects her elders. And for a child of Asian parents, I get it. More than what Meilin Lee even felt with her mother Ming. And I do wish the movie made this the central focus instead of the romance. The romance works and leads to some stunning sequences. And it’s great that they acknowledge that there’s no way Wade would ever be able to relate to Ember’s problems. But I’d trade the abrupt “I Love You” of a couple for the “I Respect You” of a family any day.
The other thing about the movie that I didn’t think was particularly well written or executed was the over-reliance on cut away flashbacks to tell the story. In a business that should be striving towards showing and not telling — and from a studio that excels at it — Elemental does a lot of telling. Upfront explanations on how characters feel are just not nearly as effective as really showing them.
And I think there’s a way to edit the film in a way where you could have shown us all of the events that happened to Bernie and his father without having to stop the movie to have Bernie narrate through all of it. Emotion comes from having us feel the conflict and the tension and the pain, not from having a character blatantly say they’re in pain. It’s not a deal breaker, and you still feel the emotion in this movie. But imagine how much more of a masterpiece this would have been with better editing and better choices?
There are also, of course, strong undertones about racial tension and discrimination in the movie that are really palpable. And I noticed many critics really dumping on the movie for its lack of subtlety, but I think it was a choice for Peter Sohn to be as intentional with the overtness of the film’s themes as he was because they are so important. And they’re inherent to the story of his family. I know in this country many don’t want to acknowledge the idea of discrimination and the mistreatment of minorities. But we need to. And Sohn gets this.
Frankly, I don’t care if people are offended by the depiction of scenes like what Ember and Bernie experience during a museum visit. I don’t care if they don’t want the messages to be as blatant. I’m proud of Sohn for shouting these messages out loud because they are messages that need to be heard, and people refuse to listen sometimes. So people can cry as much as they want about “how much better Zootopia may have handled similar themes” but Elemental bravely tackles them head on, it says what it needs to, and Sohn and crew are all the more right for doing it.
In addition to making that terrific choice, another one of the best choices the filmmakers commit to is the astonishing look of the film. It’s such a gorgeous film to look at. The animation is simply amazing. The only criticism I can say about it is that it had the misfortune of coming out after Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, which essentially has revolutionized animation. But if it weren’t for that, this would have been the most gorgeous, most colorful looking movie of the year, and the physics and effects they’ve done with the flames and the details of things like glass and water are simply stunning. Pixar manages to outdo themselves with every film, and the work they put into Elemental is astonishing.
I also need to commend the film for it’s wonderful score. I will admit to being a sucker for Thomas Newman’s work. I’ve been a fan of his previous Pixar scores, such as Finding Nemo and Wall-E. But also his work on movies like American Beauty, Road to Perdition, and Lemony Snicket. And once more he creates emotion from the simplest of notes. While the movie may have a tendency to dampen the emotion due to the execution of its script, Newman’s score elevates the emotion further to evoke the somber and hopeful notes that capture the relationship between the Lumens quite beautifully. It leads up to a crescendo of a final scene that honestly didn’t leave a dry eye at my screening.
Yeah it’s true, Elemental may not reach the heights of Pixar’s classics. But you know what? It never had to. It only ever needed to be the sweet, beautiful, outspoken movie that it is. It’s a movie about family, about society, and about dreams. In many ways, it’s a story about America and our place in it. And all of that comes across wonderfully, highlighted by some of the most gorgeous animation ever put out by the studio. The love story and the writing could have been stronger. I can’t deny that. But at its core, the beauty and beating heart residing within this movie are simply elemental.
Overall Score (on an entertainment level): B+
Overall Score (on a representation level): A