Synopsis: 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 have in common.
Stars: Leah Lewis, Mamoudou Athie, Ronnie del Carmen, Shila Ommi, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Catherine O’Hara, Mason Wertheimer, Joe Pera
Director: Peter Sohn
Running Length: 109 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: For Disney/Pixar’s first original film released in theaters since the start of the pandemic, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Elemental. Early trailers and marketing gave me touches of their Oscar-winning Inside Out, but then I started hearing it was more of a Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? style romantic comedy that represented a change of tone for the studio. As the traditional definition of animation has evolved, so has the understanding that “cartoons” are not simply made for children anymore. With Elemental, Disney/Pixar has taken a simple approach to a complex issue and made it accessible to more than its target audience.
Bernie and Cinder Lumen have immigrated to Element City from their homeland, carrying its Blue Flame as a reminder of where they came from. Shortly after arriving and setting up a shop that caters to other residents of Fire Town, Cinder gives birth to Ember (Leah Lewis), the daughter that will eventually inherit what they’ve built. Years pass, and Ember grows into a headstrong young firecracker with difficulty controlling her temper, often resulting in explosive consequences.
During a particularly bad burn, she breaks a pipe and meets water element Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie, Underwater), an empathetic health inspector who quickly cites her and her family business for various violations. The two make an undeniable connection and find a spark that keeps putting them together, eventually pairing them up to solve a few other issues within the city walls. As a mutual relationship grows, so does their understanding that their differences will take some time to overcome. While Wade feels like they can adapt, going so far as to invite Ember to meet his cry-happy family members, Ember fears what will occur if the two elements that so oppose each other would ever truly blend.
If I’m being candid, I wasn’t expecting that much from the film. Perhaps it’s because as I age, I’m less intrigued (distracted?) by the art of the final product but more interested in how the filmmakers approach the message embedded in their creations. With the possibility of the movies being played on a loop in homes worldwide, there’s a mighty power up for grabs, and with great power comes…well, you know. That’s why Elemental became such a fascinating exploration into a more extensive discussion about blended families, mixed-race partnerships, and the inter-generational divide that continues to grow as our world advances.
Elemental emerges as one of the more mature Disney/Pixar collaborations to date, and it didn’t surprise me that its director, Peter Sohn, was also behind the divisive The Good Dinosaur from 2015. That film had its fair share of problems as it went through a tumultuous post-production period, eventually debuting to muted box office numbers and critical/audience reaction. However, both films have a humanitarian sensitivity, often absent in the more bombastic Disney/Pixar endeavors. To that end, I enjoyed Elemental the deeper it dug into these questions. It wears its heart on its sleeve and isn’t afraid to show emotion (or bait the audience into showing theirs) throughout.