THE STORY – In a city where fire, water, land, and air residents live together, a fiery young woman and a go-with-the-flow guy discover something elemental: how much they actually have in common.
THE CAST – Leah Lewis, Mamoudou Athie, Ronnie del Carmen, Shila Ommi, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Catherine O’Hara, Mason Wertheimer, Joe Pera & Matt Yang King
THE TEAM – Peter Sohn (Director), John Hoberg, Kat Likkel & Brenda Hsueh (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 109 Minutes
“Take a breath. Make a connection.”
After scoring two back-to-back Best Picture Oscar nominations in 2009 and 2010 for “Up” and “Toy Story 3” respectively, with their most critically celebrated films to date releasing before that in 2007 with “Ratatouille” and “WALL-E” in 2008, Pixar Animation Studios not only raised the bar for animation excellence for other studios but also for themselves. It was inevitable that they would then, in years since, not be able to recapture the glory of such a special time. While the occasional new adored film will come along, such as “Inside Out” or “Coco,” there have also been solid entries such as “Luca,” “Turning Red” and disappointing ones too, such as last year’s “Lightyear” and “The Good Dinosaur” in 2015. The feature directorial debut of Peter Sohn, “The Good Dinosaur,” was seen as a crushing low point for the studio, whose entire identity was built around the fact that they were considered some of the world’s greatest storytellers but on this particular film, they fell drastically short of the high bar they had set for themselves. Eight years later, Sohn finally gets his redemption for his latest film from Pixar, “Elemental,” which is an unequivocal triumph in nearly every area where “The Good Dinosaur” failed. Mixing the elements of an immigrant story and a love story while drawing upon his own real-life experiences, Sohn and the rest of the team behind this charming film have not only delivered one of Pixar’s best films in recent memory but one of their best overall.
Arriving at Elemental City (a stand-in for any major urban city with cultural diversity) by sea on a ship, the fiery Lumen family consisting of Bernie (Ronnie del Carmen), his wife Cinder (Shila Ommi), and their daughter Ember (voiced by Clara Lin Ding at a younger age), left their families behind to start a new life for themselves. No one knows how to pronounce their names, and in a city primarily occupied by inhabitants comprised of water, they’re considered not welcome since both elements are considered dangerous to the other. Thus, they are sequestered in an isolated area outside the city with the rest of the fire population. Here, the Lumens build from scratch their successful family business, “The Fireplace,” a shop that sells fire-based products and snacks. Years later, after much sacrifice, their daughter Ember (now voiced by “The Half Of It” star Leah Lewis) is fully grown and ready to inherit the family business from her aging father (who she commonly refers to as Ashfa). But is this what Ember wants for her life? Her uncontrollable temper (which results in a powerful heatwave blast from her burning body) in the face of demanding customers seems to suggest otherwise. When one of her outbursts results in a broken pipe, water seeps its way into the shop, as does the highly emotional and charismatic Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie), a water element which works as an inspector for Element City and decides to shut the Fireplace down for failing to meet city expectations. When Ember makes her appeal to Wade to reconsider, he chooses to help her save her family’s business, which will take them across town through Elemental City and on a journey where opposites will attract and the two elements who physically cannot be together (literally, they cannot touch, as she’ll evaporate him, and he’ll extinguish her if they do) will come to realize just how compatible they truly are.
“Elemental” is working with not one but two stories here: the immigrant story of the Lumens and the love story between Ember and Wade. The two are directly tied to one another as Ember’s parents are disapproving and prejudiced toward water elements, and Wade’s family also comes from a different class background where they are much wealthier, progressive, and supportive of their son’s life decisions. This is not to say Ember’s parents aren’t supportive of her. Still, she doesn’t exactly know this either, as she feels the sacrifices they’ve made to give her a life in Elemental City can only be repaid by sacrificing her own life, so she’s never bothered to talk with them about her desires. Part of what makes Ember and Wade’s relationship work is not just how opposite they are but how Wade encourages Ember to be her own person outside of the familial expectation she’s placed upon herself. While she may have a scorching hot temper which can cause destruction toward anything around her when she gets too angry, Wade is filled with so many feelings it allows him to connect with people easily. This also means he’s constantly leaking water from his body, either through crying or anxiously sweating. This and his heavier body might make Wade sound like a goof compared to the tough, quick-witted Ember. Still, how Sohn and the team of writers contrast their personalities, bodies, and backgrounds gives “Elemental” one-half of its beating heart. The fact that they can all match such an organically sweet and meaningful story of connection with the simultaneous story between Ember and her parents is a resounding success for Pixar as it reaches emotional highs in the third act the studio has not hit for several years. It’s an endearing tale of love conquering any obstacle either life throws at you, or you throw at yourself that will surely make you cry just as hard as Wade (but not Ember, as fire elements cannot cry).
Of course, the animation from the wizards at Pixar is beyond reproach at this point. And “Elemental” is yet another stunning offering with photoreal water effects for the environments, while Ember and Wade have 2D animation outlining applied to them in subtle ways to help the characters pop off the screen. The film’s production design, notably the Fireplace, is clever as each element has their setting catered towards their body chemistry. Thomas Newman’s soothing score is magnificent and easily the best he’s composed yet for a Pixar film, as it incorporates many cultural influences from eastern countries (but never anything too specific so as not to stereotype the Lumen family) to create a soundscape that is playfully cordial and appealing. The song “Steal The Show” by Lauv, which plays during Wade and Ember’s first date, is a winning track that should enjoy some decent radio play and also aids in giving the film its feel-good vibe. Voice performances all get the job done, with Leah Lewis as a definitive highlight as Ember. While Athie can sometimes overdo Wade’s emotions a little too much, Lewis is always there to give her character and the scene the warmth this film so desperately needs to melt your heart.
While there are a few eye-rolling puns, such as “Get off your lazy ash” or “elements don’t mix,” to be found within the script, the writing wisely never introduces a full-on antagonist for Wade and Ember to encounter and instead keeps any and all conflict internal, helping to ground the story and allow the broader, universal themes to resonate genuinely. Talk of what the Lumen family calls “Tishok,” which essentially means embracing the fire while it still burns, is a message the film exudes through its characters as the naturally communicated life lessons appeal to kids and adults in the audience. An affectionate tribute to immigrant families and the boundless capabilities of love, “Elemental” is a wholesome reminder that despite a few previous misfires, Pixar can still create the kind of beloved animated classics that will be passed down from generation to generation. Just as Ember and Wade do for each other, “Elemental” will warm your heart and move you to tears.