Elemental review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
It’s not very often that you see an animated family film from a big-name studio crafting a romantic drama. For a premise like Elemental, one would expect Pixar to deliver the goods regarding quality animation, world-building elements, and a genuine heart that feels less artificial than its contemporaries. But it also manages to be atmospheric and meaningful beyond speculations that this is a different Zootopia flavor. While that film centered more on its aspects of nature versus nurture and a conspiracy behind it, Elemental takes better aim at relationships and legacy amid its action and silliness.
The film doesn’t waste much time explaining Elemental City's specifics. We get the gist from the visuals of how people made of fire, water, plants, and clouds populate this metropolis. The topic of fire people being the least accepted as immigrants are made clear through the legacy of how Ember (Leah Lewis) came to be. She grew up with her family running a shop of fire-based gifts in what seems like the fire section of town. Despite her temper, she thinks she wants to carry on her father’s legacy by doing right by him and taking over the shop as dad nears retirement. Those plans may not happen when a water leak in the basement and mismanagement of ducts in the city may cause them to lose everything.
But the film doesn’t settle for this save-the-block style narrative. Instead, it becomes more about how Ember connects with the water figure Wade (Mamoudou Athie). They cross paths as he’s a city inspector, and they work together to solve the mystery of bursting pipes. As one might expect from this establishment, they question how close they can be together when fire and water don’t mix on a technical and cultural level. Of course, fire and water mixing would create steam and it’d be so fitting to say their relationship gets to the point of steamy. Instead, it’s mostly a story of finding love and acceptance in the most unlikely of places.
The romantic drama that bubbles between the two is beautifully conceived by how they use their powers for many delightful diversions. Ember can use her fire powers to turn the sand on the beach into glass sculptures and transform herself into different colors when touching crystals. Wade can create gorgeous water displays and navigate a bubble underwater to let Ember further into his underwater world. It was especially intriguing to watch how their home lives looked. Ember occupies a shop with a blue flame representing their culture and Wade’s family apartment is more like a swimming pool than a living space. The emotional spectrums of the cultures are also fascinating in how Ember’s people have to keep their tempers in check less they explode (literally), and Wade’s people embrace sadness to let the tears flow.
This film could've taken so many easy routes, but it opts for the high road at several points. It might be frustrating that the environmental issue regarding a dam is sidelined and even forgotten about for a portion of this film. But, honestly, it’s way more exciting to watch the will-they-won’t-they tale of Ember and Wade as opposed to whether or not they can save the block or break the bigotry of their people. It’s also just a delight to the eyes for how the world naturally flourishes rather than slow down to explain it all. I don’t need the specifics of how the cloud people play what essentially looks like Quidditch. It’s more fun to divulge through the visuals than a tired explanation.
Elemental is the best type of Pixar film that showcases worlds never seen and highlights emotional subject matter not as prevalent. It does have some areas where it reverts to expected gags but it’s also a bit more easygoing when compared to other animated films, allowing the audience to appreciate the beauty and wonder of the animation. After such a frenetic film as Across the Spider-Verse, this is the perfect chaser.