If there’s one thing Pixar has proven that it understands in its 30+ years of production, it’s family dynamics. From the found-family elements of Toy Story in 1995 to the growing pains of Turning Red in 2022, the bond between family is a topic they continuously explore from various angles. Couple those angles, like the idea of an immigrant family moving to a foreign land where their differences are largely despised, with commentary on forbidden love, classism critique, and the exploration of breaking societal norms and you get Elemental, Disney and Pixar’s newest, visually stunning and masterfully packaged feature film.
Elemental tells the story of Ember Lumen (Leah Lewis), a very (literally) fiery young woman with a big heart and a big temper who seeks to make her immigrant parents proud by taking over the family business one day. She’s headstrong, honorable and by-the-book. Being a cornerstone of the community, Ember attempts to live up to the legacy of her father, Bernie Lumen (voiced by Ronnie Del Carmen), who established a convenience store, “Fireplace,” during he and his wife Cinder’s (voiced by Shila Ommi) arrival in Fire Town. Upon meeting Wade Ripple (voiced by Mamoudou Athie)—a city building code inspector, sports fan and all-around chill guy—purely through accident, Ember realizes there could be more to life than work and tradition.
Elemental premieres June 16th only in theaters. Light spoilers below.
REVIEW – Familiar Themes with Thought-Provoking Commentary
Elemental is a movie that quickly finds a unique sweet spot; dealing with the pressures and dynamics first, second and even third-generation immigrants face when establishing their new lives in different places. It’s a topic that viewers of all age-ranges and from all walks of life can relate to. The film delves into the emotional conflicts, social complexities, and profound challenges that families encounter on their journey. And while it’s mostly allegorical, it does touch on the very real idea of belonging, and the pursuit of Element City’s version of the “American Dream.”
Ember Lumen embodies a generation grappling with their place in an ever changing landscape who have to balance the weight of increased self-awareness, “grind culture,” and adjusting to bygone standards in an era that doesn’t quite support it. Wade evens out her life by being the self-care in the equation. As the empathetic (sometimes overly sensitive, to comedic effect) boyfriend who comes from an upper-class family, Ripple’s naivety comes from growing up in a lax household with a mother and uncle who coddle him, younger nephews to entertain and the philosophy of the world being a playground. Needless to say, his is a very different background from Ember.
In addition to these larger themes, Director Peter Sohn deftly adds romance into the story. For Wade, it’s almost certainly love at first sight. For Ember, not so much. And for Wade to win her heart, he’ll have to show her the world in way she has never seen it before. Element City is largely segregated (“Elements Don’t Mix” is the mantra of the people) but the Fire People take the brunt of it. Wade not only pushes Ember out of her comfort zone, but introduces her to situations she wouldn’t often get into herself (like sports in the wind district). Once the two begin warming up to each other (pun intended), they then have to deal with the culture clash of their respective families.
Story-wise, while at its core it may sound reminiscent to Romeo and Juliet, Elemental manages to infuse a sense of originality through its inventive approach. The film delves into the complexities of forbidden love, navigating the journey of two individuals from different backgrounds with actual, physiological, chemical differences (as opposed to the solely aesthetic ones most humans deal with in real life). Through its characters, Elemental presents a poignant commentary on the limitations of classism, offering a gentle reminder of the power of unity and understanding.
Elemental is a comfort film at heart—there are no supervillains to defeat or a deadly plan to thwart. Instead, it’s a clash of cultures and ideas; and many of its best moments are when our heroes are bucking tradition. When Wade and Gale Cumulus (voiced by Wendi McLendon-Covey) conspire to take Ember underwater in an air bubble (a sequence affectionately called “The Bubble Date” by the film’s producer, Denise Ream) to experience her favorite flowers glowing and growing in their natural habitat, it plays out as not only a tender scene but also as a daring one. As Ember’s air bubble deflates, Wade’s understated heroic instincts kick in to return her to the surface—and the audience catches their breath just as Ember does.
Leah Lewis and Mamoudou Athie bring their characters, Ember and Wade respectively, to life with complete sincerity. There’s less “acting” and more “being” in their performances, as their voices raise and lower, laughs and cries escape and emotional beats are embraced in the most organic way. It also helps that they’re in a world populated with big personalities to play off of, like Catherine O’Hara as Brook Ripple (Wade’s mother), and—my personal favorite—Wendi McLendon-Covey’s Gale Cumulus (Wade’s powerhouse boss). The figurative and literal diversity of the cast (Lewis is Chinese American, Athie is Mauritanian-American, and Ava Hauser, a non-binary actor, voices Wade’s younger sibling, Lake) certainly help inform the performances for the better. Altogether, the cast shares a chemistry that makes Elemental a pure joy to soak in.
One of the standout aspects of the film is the musical score of industry veteran Thomas Newman. He captures the essence of each scene and enhances the emotional depth of the story. Notably, his collaboration with Lauv on the original track “Steal The Show” proves to be an absolute winner (with “Song of the Summer” potential for radio and streaming stations), adding an additional layer of soul to the overall soundtrack.
In terms of pacing, Elemental strikes a commendable balance. While some moments may feel slightly redundant, such as cuts of Ember’s explosive outbursts in her shop, the film maintains a steady rhythm throughout. It allows ample time for character development and emotional resonance without rushing or dragging the narrative.
Visually, Elemental adheres to Pixar’s signature excellence. The animation is breathtakingly beautiful, the textures (namely the water) are incredibly realistic, and the Fire People in particular have a very fascinating mix of “drawn” lines on top of the standard 3D that is reminiscent of the Spider-Verse films. It all creates a vibrant and immersive world that will captivate audiences of all ages.
Elemental isn’t without its questionable bits. Wade is a character I had trouble with. With Ember, many will find inspiration or connection with the drive, depth and nuances of her character, as a young woman coming in to her own as an unwavering, dutiful daughter and soon-to-be business owner. With Wade, there isn’t quite as much to look up to. While I understand the dynamic between the two of them was played both for contrast and for laughs, Wade Ripple comes across most times as starry-eyed, passive and a bit of a crybaby. It is worth acknowledging that Mamoudou Athie does an outstanding job embodying the role and all its specifics, and it is nice to have a portrayal of a male protagonist who is able to openly express the wide spectrum of emotions—and to introduce the heroine to new feelings as well. But I wish Wade had a greater and more active mission than solely winning Ember’s love.
As previously mentioned, Elemental is a storyline we’re all familiar with: the younger generation falls in a love that’s forbidden by the previous generation. There isn’t much in the way of plot twists or surprises, and Elemental plays it safe with the narrative, focusing instead on the joyride of the experience to get viewers through. While the story may not be novel, execution is everything. Elemental takes the familiar and gives it a makeover, carried by the industry’s finest artists, animators and voice actors, putting it in an overall satisfying package.
In conclusion, Elemental is a film that amalgamates familiar themes with a thought-provoking commentary on classism, societal expectations and the pressure we put on ourselves on a day-to-day basis. It successfully blends these elements within a mesmerizing world created by Pixar’s visual prowess. With moments of poetic pacing, Elemental proves to be an endearing cinematic experience that not only entertains but also inspires introspection and connection. It reminds us that sometimes, breaking free and forging our own path can lead to the most extraordinary outcomes. Truly, love is all you need.
- A visually stunning film, Pixar must have implemented every technique they have to achieve the brilliance and vibrancy of Elemental
- Great musical score by Thomas Newman and Lauv
- Incredibly relatable story about immigrant pride, struggle and personal growth. There’s something here for all ages to relate to
- Wade’s portrayal as a love interest is solid, but as a leading man, a bit underwhelming
- A very by-the-numbers forbidden romance underlines the central plot
RATING – 4/5 Pocky
Elijah Isaiah Johnson is a writer/illustrator/animator. His most recently published works include the Amazon best-seller Nightmare Detective, Noir is the New Black, the Comixology Indie best-selling series Leaders of the Free World, The Formula and much more.