When you sit down to watch a Pixar film, you have a certain set of expectations. You go in expecting a story fit for adults and children alike, alongside some cutting edge visual achievements. Well, not only do you get that with their latest effort in Elemental, but there’s a bonus as well. What Pixar is doing with this movie is telling an old-fashioned love story. In fact, it’s the animation giant’s first romantic comedy. Unsurprisingly, the studio is a good fit for the rom-com, which also has an immigrant story subtext, in addition to some technological achievements that will boggle your mind.
Elemental is a classic Hollywood romantic comedy, which is a definite compliment. The budding romance of our central characters is lovely. Additionally, the social commentary at play fits well within the rom-com vibe. If the overall plot is a bit thin, with a crammed in almost action subplot that’s not as engaging as the rest, it’s just what prevents this from being a full-on Pixar classic. That being said, it’s still incredibly warm (no pun intended) and supremely entertaining.
Welcome to Element City, which has a Manhattan feel to it, only populated by four different elements. The Water Element were first to the city, followed by the Air Element and Earth Element, with the Fire Element somewhat second-class citizens. It’s here that Bernie Lumen (voice of Ronnie Del Carmen) and Cinder Lumen (voice of Shila Ommi) have emigrated to raise their soon to be born daughter, Ember Lumen (voice of Leah Lewis). Bernie opens up a store, one that he hopes to pass on to Ember one day. Ember has other dreams, with a passion and interest in art that gives her a distinct personality, but after the sacrifice her folks have made, she feels like she must honor them by doing the same.
When Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie) enters Ember’s life, opposites don’t initially attract. In fact, Wade may be responsible for Ember being the cause of the Lumen’s shop being shut down. As Ember and Wade try to prevent that, a bond also begins, which might even lead to love. Of course, fire and water don’t mix, as Bernie and Cinder are quick to point out. However, could love conquer all in this case? You can probably guess what happens, but watching it unfold is quite heartwarming.
The voice cast is uniformly strong, slipping into their roles and disappearing. Leah Lewis showcases all the fiery passion of Ember, while Mamoudou Athie makes sure the bigger personality of Wade never becomes caricature. Their chemistry is splendid, really buying you into the love story at play. They’re easily the highlights, though Wendi McLendon-Covey and Catherine O’Hara are quite funny in small roles, while Ronnie Del Carmen and Shila Ommi get their moments as well as Ember’s relatable parents. Supporting voices here include Innocent Ekakitie, Joe Pera, Mason Wertheimer, Matthew Yang King, and more.
Director Peter Sohn brings a real personal aspect to this story. Sohn’s relationship to his parents informs the plot, with lovely results. The direction showcases strong pacing and a great sense of both humor and romance. The script, written by John Hoberg, Kat Likkel, Brenda Hsueh, and Sohn, is very clever. They also include a perfectly placed dirty joke towards the end that had me howling. Composer Thomas Newman contributes a wonderful score, truly surrounding the terrific visuals with some memorable music. Sohn and company put their all into this project and it really shows.
This is as stunning a visual achievement as Pixar has ever had. In making sure that Ember and the Fire People are literally fire, not on fire, while the Water People are water, not wet, you see all of the sumptuous detail. There’s also a just wondrous look to Element City that you could pour over for hours. Even if the story didn’t engage you in the slightest, watching the visuals will take your breath away. I was blown away by what the crew here has manages to put forth, supporting the storyline with a look unlike anything we’ve seen.
Elemental certainly tells an old-fashioned story, but it tells it well, with all of the modern technology that can give it a distinctive work. Pixar, even if not every single film has been a classic, does have a nearly impeccable track record. So, it’s not surprising that this movie is good, but it’s pleasurable to witness all the same. Kudos to Pixar!