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Movie Reviews

Elemental ★★★



Director: Peter Sohn

Cast: Leah Lewis, Mamoudou Athie, Ronnie Del Carmen, Shila Ommi

Released: 7th July 2023

In its nearly three-decade run, Pixar has thrived on kooky story concepts. What if our most beloved toys came to life? What if a rat was a world-class Parisian chef? With that, what if fire and water tried to date? certainly feels ripe for exploration in a way only Pixar knows how to deliver. Directed by Peter Sohn, Elemental is ambitious in telling a tale deeper than its initial premise but falls just short of the magic of days past.  

Elemental takes us to Element City, a bustling landscape where air, earth, fire and water inventively negotiate their shared environment – with the fire people reflecting an immigrant community brushed to the side and, in many cases, openly discriminated against. We’re introduced to Ember Lumen (Leah Lewis), the spirited teenage daughter of Bernie (Ronnie del Carmen) and Cinder (Shila Ommi). With her parents intending to transition into retirement, Ember is expected to take over the running of their family convenience store, but a struggle to control her temper continually delays the process. After an outburst at the store spirals out of control and causes a flood, Ember meets Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie), a government building inspector whose earnest commitment to due diligence inadvertently puts the store’s future in danger. Wade falls for Ember but must overcome the scepticism of her parents and the couple’s very real barrier to physical touch. 

While the romantic aspect of Elemental has been hugely marketed, equally spotlighted is the experience of children with immigrant parents. The film remains firmly aimed at children but admirably and explicitly engages with Ember’s guilt and frustration in feeling duty-bound to repay the sacrifice her parents made in leaving their home nation. While Ember wrestles with the prospect of giving up her own dreams, Wade, by comparison, is from a relatively privileged family who are deeply (and entertainingly) in touch with their sensitivity and have imbued him with the belief in self-determination. Giving voice to an experience that will resonate with many viewers and educate others who do not share the same background is a welcome decision in line with the expanding narrative voices perspectives that animated films as a whole have slowly started to offer audiences – with 2022’s Turning Red and Sony’s Spiderverse series as an example of films that feature protagonists from non-white backgrounds and showcase different ethnic cultures as a part of their world-building, as well as how that culture can relate to their sense of identity. 

Where Elemental’s creative flame begins to falter, however, is in balancing the richness of messaging with sustaining entertainment. Here, the story seems almost too simple. While watching, it’s hard not to daydream about Disney’s 2016 offering Zootopia. With similar themes of acceptance and integration, its detective-based backdrop felt pacy with memorable moments of humour (a sloth working at the DMV never fails to raise a smile). At times, it feels like Elemental wishes to evoke fragments of this wittiness, but a grouchy earth person working at the city council doesn’t hit the mark. 

An imaginative and well-intentioned piece, Elemental feels like it should have all the bells and whistles of a Pixar classic, and while it’s far from a washout, it’s not a bright enough spark to re-ignite Pixar’s winning streak.

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