Producer: Denise Ream Director: Peter Sohn Screenplay: John Hoberg, Kat Likkel and Brenda Hsueh Cast: Leah Lewis, Mamoudou Athie, Ronnie Del Carmen, Shila Ommi, Wendi McLendon-Covery, Catherine O’Hara, Mason Wertheimer, Joe Pera, Matt Yang King and Ronobir Lahiri Distributor: Disney
The images in Pixar’s newest film have a luminous beauty, but as was the case with “The Good Dinosaur” (2015), Peter Sohn’s previous feature for the studio, “Elemental” is weak in the story department. It’s basically an odd-couple romance, with a heavy dose of immigrant-experience struggle added to the mix—a combination that’s hardly unfamiliar.
What is unusual is the locale it which the story is set—Element City, a metropolis inhabited by denizens literally made up of different elements (air, earth, fire and water, the quartet that prevailed in pre-modern thought). The girl at the center of things is Ember (voiced by Leah Lewis), whose parents Bernie Lumen (Ronnie Del Carmen) and his wife Cinder (Shila Ommi) have traveled from Fireland to make a better life for themselves. They find that the city is semi-segregated, and their kind are concentrated in a neighborhood called Fire Town, where Bernie opens a store called Fireplace that flourishes while meeting the needs of the sometimes cantankerous locals, and Ember grows from a tyke to a young woman happily helping her dad at the counter.
But it’s a ramshackle place, and when city inspector Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie) shows up to look into a leak from basement pipes that should have been shut down long ago, he begins writing up violations that threaten to shut down the business. But he’s a goofy, apologetic fellow, obviously taken by the feistiness of the strong-willed, aggressive Ember, and he offers to help in her battle with the municipal authorities, particularly his boss (Wendi McClendon-Covery), a puffy air cloud who’s a passionate supporter of a local airball team, the Windbreakers. She gives the duo a chance to trace the source of the water leak and make repairs to save Fireplace.
A few representatives of Earth also feature in the movie—there’s Fern Grouchwood (Joe Pera), a fusty bureaucrat, and Clod (Mason Wertheimer), a kid in Fire Town who has a thing for Ember, but the emphasis remains on the Fire-and-Water dichotomy as the relationship between Ember and Wade deepens—Bernie and Cinder are pretty adamant in their opposition to their daughter getting involved with a Water Guy. On the other hand, Wade’s well-to-do family—his mother Brook (Catherine O’Hara), uncle Harold (Ronobir Lahiri) and brother Alan (Matt Yang King)—are quite supportive of the duo, welcoming Ember for dinner. Brook is also taken by Ember’s ability to melt and harden glass, which expresses her desire to become an artist rather than follow in her father’s footsteps, and is in a position to help the girl reach for her dream, much to Bernie’s distress.
The detective-work part of the couple’s growing romance gets pretty short shrift—they track down the cause of the overflowing water, and Ember uses her glass-manipulating power to fix it at least temporarily; but otherwise it’s shunted aside. Note that there’s no malevolence involved: this is a Disney film that lacks a villain, except for bigotry. That’s typical of the entire movie, which is based more on abstractions, as artfully personified as they might be, than on individuals.
Yet the personifications are beautifully rendered. The dancing orange flickers that make up the Fire folk and the shimmering blue motions of the Water people are lovely, and while the other two kinds of element-based citizens are less imaginatively rendered (cotton-candy fluffs for the air types, brown clumps with leaves and branches for the earthy types), the backgrounds are astonishingly colorful. And Sohn inserts a big set-piece to allow for a special explosion of the animator’s craft—a visit Wade arranges for Ember to an underwater garden where she can finally see the legendary tree of life she was prevented from viewing as a child.
Yet in the end despite the remarkable work of animation supervisors Michael Venturini, Kureha Yokoo and their team, visual effects supervisor Sanjay Bakshi and his, production designer Don Shank, cinematographers David Juan Bianchi and Jean-Claude Kalache and editor Stephen Schaffer (as well as a score by Thomas Newman that pushes the emotional buttons hard), and fine voice work overall, Sohn’s film emerges as a gorgeous but rather heavy-handed allegory of an opposites-attract romance, given some genuine heft only in its undercurrents about anti-immigrant attitudes.
“Elemental” is certainly superior to “Strange World,” the last Disney animated feature released to theatres, and also one more notable for its visuals than its narrative. But especially for kids, it’s inferior to some that went straight to streaming, like “Luca,” which was both far more fun and more touching. And adults will probably look back to “Inside Out” and “Soul” as Pixar offerings that took on serious subjects to greater effect.
They all are likely to agree, though, that “Up” was one of Pixar’s best, and its main character reappears with Ed Asner’s voice in the short “Carl’s Date,” which is being released as a kind of overture to “Elemental.” Unfortunately, it fails to recapture the spirit of the 2009 classic—it’s okay but frankly negligible.