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  • Nate Adams

'Elemental' review: Elements in need of more chemistry

Courtesy of Disney/Pixar


On paper, “Elemental” has all the ingredients that represent Pixar’s best qualities. It takes place in a wondrous locale called Element City, where earth, wind, fire, and water become anthropomorphized with stunning and vivid character detail; it also has a charming immigration/love story at its core that, if anyone should have been able to mesh these themes into something meaningful, it’s Pixar. After all, this is the same studio that’s delivered some of the most wondrous animated spectacles and I will go to my grave stating “Inside Out” is the best animated movie of all time. But aside from the glistening animation detail, “Elemental” doesn’t have the bravado nor emotional hook to keep viewers, let alone small children, invested in the final outcome. It’s a romantic comedy desperately in need of some more chemistry. 

For starters, the sheer concept of Element City suffers from the “Cars” complex where you’re left with more questions than answers. Like how there’s water people and then also water that characters drink? Aren’t clouds made of water? And yet, they’re not technically “water people?” Why does water live in buildings? Why do some elements wear shirts and others only wear pants? At one point a character burns through a metal fence and promptly asks: “Why do we even have these?” And I was left to wonder the same thing. 

Such trivial questions probably weren't at the forefront of director Peter Sohn’s mind when conceiving the film, but as “Elemental” settles into its groove, the allure of the animation starts ceding to a wonky immigration metaphor and budding romance that, forgive the pun, doesn’t hold much water. Pixar used to be able to masterfully blend these high concept narratives with memorable characters, but now it seems the studio is reverting to ham-fisted and generic storylines they used to rebel against. 

“Elemental” follows the journey of Ember (voiced by Leah Lewis, solid) who, when we first meet her, is eager and willing to take over her dad’s convenience store located in Fire Town. Her parents emigrated from their tribal land years ago and sought refuge in Element City, eventually building a sustainable business meant to endure for generations. But her outlook on life changes when she meets waterboy Wade Dripple (Mamoudou Athie), a sensitive city inspector who tries shutting the store down. Of course, in true romantic comedy fashion, Wade becomes a nuisance for Ember, before the pair inevitably finds common ground and connection through conversation and inner self-exploration.

At its best, the tender moments between Ember and Wade reminded me of a better Pixar vehicle, “Wall-E” wherein Wall-E and Eve had more genuine attraction than the two main elements here. Watching Ember open up and cool her temperament enough to let Wade understand why she’s distant and reserved is occasionally touching, but the complexity of the world building ends up undermining the relationship. Considering most of the inhabitants of fire town, especially her dad, are all hot headed, how are we supposed to know if Ember is actually unique in her behaviors? Same for Wade’s sensitive sally nature of sobbing at the mere thought of something sad percolating in his brain, which isn’t specific to him, rather, it runs in the family. Are all water people that annoying?

Ironically, Pixar’s best qualities of fleshing out intricate and uber specific details of their location ends up being a major distraction from the plot of “Elemental.” You’d rather live in the background than whatever is happening on screen. It’s both a simple storyline and overstuffed one, plus the script, penned by John Hober, Kat Likkel, and Brenda Hsueh, features plenty of puns and dad jokes that’ll make your head spin. 

The visual spunkiness of the city notwithstanding (clouds using public transit, the way Ember wields her fire prowess to sculpt beautiful glass structures, and how a teenage tree going through puberty grows a flower out of their armpits instead of hair), “Elemental” has too much going on. Because aside from the romance and self discovery mission, Ember and Wade also get tasked with finding a leak in the city’s infrastructure that’s causing all types of chaos. The fact we haven’t to ponder how there is supposedly sentient and non-sentient water is enough to make anyone check-out. But if anything, “Elemental” shows Pixar, after a string of less than stellar films and with movies like “Across The Spider-Verse” redefining the medium, they are no longer the gold standard in animation. 

Grade: C

ELEMENTAL is now playing in theaters. 


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