Review: ‘Elemental’ is a Thematically Rich Inter-Element Love Story
by Manuel São Bento
July 19, 2023
When it comes to animation, there is no studio more beloved than Pixar. The infamous stereotype that “animation is only meant for children” has been broken and disproved many times over the years, and much of this work is due to the studio’s reputation for emotionally powerful stories with impactful messages for anyone of any generation. Lately, despite positive reviews from both critics & audiences, their new movies haven’t been able to achieve the same overwhelming commercial & financial success. I don’t understand this trend, as I’ve continued to enjoy their recent offerings immensely, including Pixar’s latest: Elemental. This movie has already been playing in theaters for months in the US, but I’m glad I could finally catch up with it.
Elemental’s director Peter Sohn is pretty much one of the top talents within Pixar already, being a creative voice with increasing importance within the animation studio since 1999. Despite countless contributions as a narrative artist, producer, and animator, the truth is that Elemental is only his second feature film as a director – his debut was The Good Dinosaur from 2015. It’s been a while since I walked into a movie theater completely clueless about the film I was going to see. Total lack of knowledge about the type of story, cast, and even visuals, as I’ve only come across one or two stills from Elemental over these last few months.
Pixar’s Elemental easily became one of the most surprising viewings of the year for me, precisely because of the circumstances that led me to see it. It’s a movie with more heart than narrative creativity – a somewhat generic, predictable screenplay – where the variety of relevant themes and relatable characters is the biggest highlight. From the risks and sacrifices of emigrating to the depiction of different types of discrimination, without forgetting the barriers created by outdated family ideals as well as the importance of cultural traditions, screenwriters John Hoberg & Kat Likkel, along with Brenda Hsueh, leave no topic aside.
That said, the main story revolves around the rather straightforward question: can opposite elements like water and fire actually be together? Do opposites really attract to each other? Elemental constructs a clear parallel by focusing the narrative on an intimate interracial relationship by bringing together Ember (voiced by Leah Lewis), a fire element, and Wade (voiced by Mamoudou Athie), a water element, addressing all the natural complexities that arise from this entanglement. With so many different ideas to explore between the two of them, secondary topics end up getting superficial exploration, but still, the movie is still efficient and thought-provoking about the scenarios it examines.
On the other hand, the romance and Ember’s journey of self-discovery couldn’t have been handled better. Both characters of Ember and Wade share remarkably human personalities, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, as well as completely different upbringings due to their families, who also couldn’t live in more distinct ways. If Ember’s family was forced to emigrate to improve their quality of life and struggled daily to build their own business and home, Wade was born with a golden spoon, has always lived in the city center, and all of his family members are highly successful.
If Ember and her parents are alienated by a city that was far from being open or accessible to fire elements, Wade has never had any problems adapting to a privileged environment. One would expect Wade’s family to be more close-minded and not accept fire elements into their nucleus and community, but Elemental very cleverly plays with audience expectations and exchanges characteristics that would normally be associated with a certain group of people just because they come from a certain culture or way of life.
Elemental is, at its core, a love story, and the interactions between Ember and Wade are more captivating as the plot unfolds. The ease with which Ember gives in to her nerves and anger ends up leading her to find an overly dramatic Wade, who gets too emotional with everything that involves stronger feelings, generating not only a physical barrier due to their nature but also an emotional obstacle. The beautiful arcs that each character traverses feel extraordinarily lifelike and any viewer will be able to connect with both elements.
It’s true that everything happens in a rather obvious manner, and the surprise factor with this story is nearly zero. That’s why Pixar’s Elemental is a perfect example of how much the audience’s emotional connection to the story’s protagonists is more impactful than any narrative limitation of the genre or even the plot itself. Personally, I was genuinely shocked by the fact that I had to fight back tears during the conclusion of the film, even though I anticipated everything that was going to occur anyway.
There are tons of details, both visual and narrative, that I can deeply relate to due to how the last few years of my life have unfolded, and when that’s the case, flaws like formulaic scripts become less of a distraction. Furthermore, Elemental maintains the studio’s tendency to be exceptionally educative by demonstrating how the different elements that make up our planet interact and react with each other. These details in particular are fascinating, and it’s always impressive to see the phenomenal effort put in by Pixar’s talent.
Elemental is quite similar to the real world in many ways, so the world-building in it isn’t surprising for its imagination, rather for the ease in which they’ve made parallels and comparisons to our own world. Pixar’s animation quality remains superb, and the cast’s voice performances contribute to the aforementioned emotional connection with the characters – Leah Lewis (from How to Deter a Robber, “Station 19”, “Nancy Drew”) and Mamoudou Athie (from Patti Cake$, The Circle, Uncorked, Jurassic World Dominion, “Archive 81”) clearly stand out. There’s not as much humor as I hoped for, but the few moments of comedy are highly effective, eliciting especially audible laughs from the audience, particularly featuring the water elements.
It is, without a doubt, a movie with much more heart than narrative impact. Elemental doesn’t have that emotional punch that usually leaves the entire theater weeping by the end, nor does it contain sweeping, breathtaking messages to make viewers think about their own lives for days on end. But Sohn executes all of his ideas with clear, incredibly personal intent. And, in a world where any irrelevant nitpick is enough to trash a flick nowadays, it feels good to be able to enjoy a flawed film that carries so much heart.
Pixar’s Elemental may be straightforward and predictable, but it’s so thematically rich and features such emotionally relatable characters that, by the end, I found myself fighting back tears. It features a visually stunning inter-element love story mixed with a beautiful journey of self-discovery. The outstanding world-building is once again a highlight, as are the numerous exceptionally enlightening visual details about the interaction between the different elements. Emigration, discrimination, and family ideals are some of the many essential topics addressed. I don’t understand the criticism surrounding the alleged “fall of Pixar” and this latest movie. I will continue to enjoy these stories, and I highly recommend that viewers try to do the same, without worrying about incessantly comparing to what came before.
Manuel’s Rating: A-
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