Since 1995 Pixar has been at the forefront of the animation medium and storytelling – pushing the boundaries for one-of-a-kind stories being told and the gorgeous visual display that brings these stories to life right beside it. When a Pixar film gets announced, the ears perk up and the eyes widen for what incredible feat the studio is about to pull of next. How much better than the previous film can the next film look and what story can be thought up to emotionally resonate with audiences that hasn’t already been done before in the decade spanning existence.
Once the pandemic hit, Pixar, like all major studios suffered a devastating blow. Having these feature films that would normally be seen on a big screen dumped onto the streaming platform Disney Plus and fade into obscurity has been detrimental to the individual successes of these stories. Wonderfully original films like Soul, Luca, and Turning Red not getting the support they undoubtedly deserved. And with that the Pixar name lost a leg up they enjoyed so comfortably for so many years. Especially when it comes to their films being played in theaters – because with certain films, a Pixar short film accompanies a feature and missing that complimentary story has been equally noticeable and disappointing.
The previous film Lightyear didn’t have a charming amuse bouche to enjoy before setting off on Buzz’s origin. But Elemental does, and it’s a return to form for Pixar. This review isn’t about the charming short, titled Carl’s Date (a check up on the Up protagonist and his furry friend Dug), Elemental is the star here, taking in the lessons learned from the past 5 films and course correcting the ship. Not that Soul, Luca, and Turning Red were misfires, the circumstances wound up being the failure for these films.
Written by John Hoberg, Kat Likkel and Brenda Hsueh off a story conceived by the trio along with director Peter Sohn, Elemental takes place in Element City. Not the most original sounding city but, nonetheless, it’s a city full of life and detail that only Pixar can fit into a single frame. We’re introduced to fire element immigrants Bernie (Ronnie del Carmen) and Cinder Lumen (Shila Ommi), given these names after stepping into their new home. After settling into a section of the city called “Fire Town”, the two become parents to Ember Lumen (Leah Lewis) set to inherit the family convenience store when it’s her time.
Some years pass and one day while Ember is given the responsibility of running one of the major sales, the pipes burst and city inspector Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie) sputters out. Thus sparks an unlikely romance between two elements that absolutely cannot mix – both have the ability to destroy the other in some fashion. It’s in Ember and Wade’s introduction that Elemental forges two paths that Pixar has yet to touch upon. 1 being a story of immigration and the opportunity a fresh start can bring a struggling family and 2 a love story between its main characters.
Both paths are given their time to develop through the relationships between characters. One never overshadowing the other and both integral to the foundation of who these characters are. The immigrant story is something that touches every single one of us. At one point, we’ve had relatives that have come from Europe, Asia, Africa or wherever and came to America with the promise of a better life. All coming through the same destination of Ellis Island or Angel Island. And the stories are all rather similar. Relatives worked hard to provide for their families and passed down the expectation that those children will follow in the footsteps with the same ambition and work ethic. Bernie and Cinder built their convenience store from the ash into a true inspirational success story – earning all the blood sweat and tears that goes into starting over. In their case, all of the smoke and sparks it took and built fire town from there.
As Ember grows up, she is expected to take over for her father and make him proud. All her life this is what Ember is told she must do but like all of us, we have our own path to follow, a convenience store can’t be passed down if the recipient doesn’t have the same aspiration of running it. It’s along this path that the relationship between Bernie and Ember becomes emotionally endearing. One that compares to the top relationships Pixar has constructed over the years. On one side, disappointing a parent is something we all fear while on the other, forcing someone to give up their happiness is just as crushing. The writing team hit the nail right on the head when it comes to this aspect of Elemental.
Whereas with Wade and his family including mom Brook (Catherine O’Hara) and brother Alan (Matt Yang King), and uncle Harold (Ronobir Lahiri) the Ripple’s come from wealth. They live in a high-rise condo with a tough doorman and reek of privilege. Wade and Ember couldn’t be more opposite if they tried. There may be expectations and disappointment coming from Wade’s side however, Elemental thrives by placing the emotional depth on the Lumen family. Their story is far more impactful and deserves to be told as an element or some other being.
Because Wade and Ember are different elements and come from different stations in life, their bond truly resonates off the screen. Love doesn’t know discrimination or prejudice and all it takes is a little faith that once elements come in contact with one another, the fire won’t be extinguished, and the water won’t evaporate. Opposites attract and for Pixar’s first true love story, Ember and Wade together pull of the impossible.
At the center of this charming story are Leah Lewis and Mamoudou Athie. Not having the A-list name leading the voice cast works in Elemental’s favor. Lewis and Athie’s chemistry leaps off the page, but that duo is second to Lewis and Ronnie del Carmen. The father daughter relationship steals the spotlight proving further how complicated yet simple a parent and child relationship is.
Like all Pixar films it’s the animation that continues to impress and improve upon the perfection of the previous film. Element City is bursting with life and color with each element given their own highlights. Pixar once again opens the imagination up and fills it with a spectacle of light and sound.
At the end of the day, Elemental has enough substance to fill up its older audience with enough real-world references and heart and enough style for the younger audience with comedy and stunning animation. It may not feature an immediate classic character like some of the top tier of Pixar but Elemental’s themes of heritage, tradition, expectation, family, and love create a ripple effect that transcends each section of the bustling city into one big melting pot.
Screenplay By: John Hoberg, Kat Likkel & Brenda Hsueh
Story By: John Hoberg, Kat Likkel, Brenda Hsueh & Peter Sohn
Directed By: Peter Sohn
Music By: Thomas Newman
Cinematography: David Bianchi & Jean-Claude Kalache
Starring: Leah Lewis, Mamoudou Athie, Ronnie del Carmen, Shila Ommi, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Catherine O’Hara
Edited By: Stephen Schaffer
Release Date: June 16, 2023
Running Time: 1 Hour 50 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 76%