The Plot: In a world where the four elements try to live with each other in Element City, grown-up Ember (Leah Lewis) is finding it hard to adjust to life there. Fire people are regarded as risky by the other elements of water, earth and wind so they live in their own enclave. Ember also has to contend with the legacy of her immigrant parents, who run their own store and want to pass it on to her. Ember is determined to make her own way in the world though. Water-element and city inspector Wade (Mamoudou Athie) follows a leak and ends up in the family’s basement. Threatened with the shutdown of her parents’ store, Ember tries to convince Wade otherwise. Then the spark of an unlikely connection begins…
The Verdict: Despite being right royally shafted by their Disney parent during the pandemic, the animation boffins at Pixar bounced back into cinemas last year with Lightyear. It was based on an established property and tangled itself up in a loopy Christopher Nolan-like plot, but it was still intriguing. With recent news that Toy Story 5 is happening (err…why?) whether we want it or not, has Pixar lost their trademark original thinking and been distracted by glowing six-foot dollar signs? It would appear not, based on what’s about to unfold. Their only offering this year is Elemental, a charming and strikingly original animation that recaptures that old Pixar magic and is among their most interesting and visually ravishing theatrical features in years.
As the title suggests, the film plays around with the concept of the four elements while also getting a bit mental with it too (in a good, family-friendly way). The tagline for the film is simply ‘opposites react’, which is a neat summation of the themes playing out among two very different tribes trying to get along with each other. Fire and water don’t mix and could potentially extinguish each other, which is where we find Ember and Wade as they get to know each other. Ember is fiery, forthright and very sure of herself. Wade is kindly, polite and prone to leaking at awkward moments when he expresses himself… but yet they find themselves drawn to each other as they work together to solve Ember’s family dilemma. It outwardly suggests a very kid-friendly film with its bubbly animation and cutesy first act, but then the film settles down into a cosy and more mature vibe that recalls films like Amelie and Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner.
Having stolen the show as the voice of Sox in Lightyear, director Peter Sohn drew from his own experiences being a Korean immigrant along with his parents. That lends the film a more personal touch which becomes increasingly important as the unlikely friendship and potential romance develops between these two elements. Yes, a lot can be read into what the film is saying about inter-element relationships and the importance of inclusivity and acceptance of others who are different. However, Sohn doesn’t feel the need to rub it into the audience’s face. Instead, he’s subtle about it and finds visually appealing ways to show that within Ember and Wade’s differences also lie their similarities. After an admittedly wobbly start to the film, the narrative gets progressively better to the point where the hardest heart of ice could be melted by this tinder spark of genuine feeling catching fire. Sohn even digs deeper on that originality, coming up with a climactic character revival for the ages. It’s stirring stuff.
There is genuinely impressive animation on display here, beautiful to behold on the big screen and transcending the common idea that animation is just for kids. The world-building here is also eye-popping, creating environments and situations that are relatably human even when they’re not. Pixar pride themselves on putting the story first and unlike their last film, they’ve doubled down on that to re-inforce just why originality in storytelling is so important to stand out from the animated crowd. Elemental is proof enough that the Pixar magic is back while being joyously entertaining and warmly engaging in its own right.
Rating: 4 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
The magic is back
Elemental (USA / G / 109 mins)
In short: The magic is back
Directed by Peter Sohn.
Starring Leah Lewis, Mamoudou Athie, Ronnie Del Carmen, Shila Omni, Catherine O'Hara.