At its core, Elemental is a story about the challenges that come with being burdened with outsized expectations. Pixar’s latest follows Ember, a fiery young woman who finds herself veering away from the life her immigrant father dreamed up for her after she meets and falls for the affable and tear-prone Wade. Equal parts sprightly rom-com and moving second-generation tale, the story is set in Element City, where fire, earth, wind, and water beings live (mostly) in harmony. But the film only intermittently shines with the originality and emotion that characterize Pixar’s most beloved properties.
From the very beginning (read: 1995’s Toy Story) Pixar mastered the art of blending high concepts with character-driven storytelling. Toys became metaphors for fleeting childhood nostalgia; a clown fish was at the center of a fable about helicopter parenting; a rat had us believing we could follow our talents wherever they take us. With every new film, Pixar turned what felt like wholly absurd premises into tear-jerking narratives that delighted critics and audiences alike. On paper Elemental fits quite nicely in the studio’s wheelhouse, what with this near-absurdist world playing backdrop to a story about following your dreams, embracing one another’s differences, and, above all, letting go of ill-founded prejudices.
When we first meet Ember (voiced by Leah Lewis, a standout in the film’s ace voice cast), she’s eager to take over her father’s store in Element City. As we watch her grow up in a fire neighborhood on the outskirts of the city, designed to be reminiscent of immigrant enclaves in large urban centers, plucky Ember is the great hope for Bernie and Cinder Lumen (Ronnie Del Carmen and Shila Ommi). Having successfully built a business from the ground up, the couple are excited to hand over the keys to their oft-times hotheaded daughter. Sure, Ember needs to work on her temper (she has little patience for her customers), but since this is the life she’s always known, our protagonist has no inkling that there may be more to her world than selling sparklers and log kebabs to her neighbors. Enter: Wade (Mamoudou Athie).
A city inspector with the power to have Bernie’s business shut down, Wade becomes (true to rom-com rules) a thorn in Ember’s side. In trying to plead her case with Wade and hopefully avoid having her father find out how precarious their current situation is, Ember crosses into the downtown area of Element City where she’ll have to reevaluate why she’s long felt the need to stay with her own kind. Especially once Wade proves to be much more helpful (and much more interested in Ember) than he’d first let on. Not since WALL-E has Pixar so openly flirted with the romantic comedy genre, offering in Ember and Wade not so much a battle of the sexes as a battle of the elements: can this hot-tempered young woman learn to go with the flow the way this cool young man seems to do so effortlessly? And, more to the point, can she learn to trust her feelings and carve a path for herself that leads her away from everything she’s known and loved for so long?
As a romantic comedy, Elemental feels paper thin. That’s mostly because of the schematic way in which director Peter Sohn, working from a screenplay written by John Hober, Kat Likkel, and Brenda Hsueh, has drawn up the world of Ember and Wade. Fire and water become not just character traits but world-building ones. So from a design perspective, creating a fire character who is hot-headed makes sense. But having those traits extend to her family and her community make it hard to suss out how distinct Ember is from the rest of the fire figures that populate the film (similarly, it seems Wade’s propensity toward emotional overflow is a tic shared by his entire family).
This speaks to a larger issue with Elemental: its world building is so vast and so intricate (the city has a Wetro and you can watch films like Tide And Prejudice!) that it overshadows the textured plot about the burdens placed on second-generation kids. Pixar’s 27th feature film wants to work in the realm of a fabulation yet gives us the kind of specificity that keeps us from imagining whatever kind of immigrant tale we want to see in it.
There’s visual inventiveness in how fire, water, earth, and wind characters move through the city (even if I continued to wonder how some water is sentient and other water isn’t). In fact, some of the best gags in the film come from the playful way in which Element City is portrayed by Sohn’s animation team (note the Lumen’s fire-resistant wardrobe, the many modes of transport attuned to each element, and how Ember finds new ways of using her fiery disposition to create beautiful glass). Even with the sheer artistry at work in seeing Wade and Ember interact with one another, Elemental never quite finds a similarly entrancing story beats to match. For every painstakingly explained bit of subplot (a blue flame that’s been in the Lumens family but is also maybe part of their heritage back home?) there is an equally underdeveloped slice of story (who knew failing infrastructure would be the ultimate villain of this piece?).
At times too simple and too complicated for its own good, Elemental is at its best when focused on its central duo, like the sequence that should handily be name-checked alongside The Little Mermaid’s “Kiss The Girl” and WALL-E’s “Define Dancing” whenever you want to list perfect animated dates. Ultimately though, in trying to nail the high concept bit of their premise, Pixar’s latest leaves behind the emotional complexity that would’ve made it truly shine.
Elemental opens in theaters on June 16