Review: Elemental acts as a true return to form for Pixar, a movie with a host of relevant themes and messages rolled into a remarkably effective love story. It’s been a few years since Pixar landed an original story with such a clear balance of narrative and comedy.
Elemental is the 27th movie from legendary computer animation studio Pixar, a company that has largely dominated the scene since their breakthrough early films in the 1990s. While the studio was a pioneer in that era for their ingenuity and reliance on technology to create three dimensional worlds, that’s now the new normal as fellow competing studios like Disney and Sony have dedicated so many resources to build their own brand and content in this same lane.
Just take Sony’s Across the Spider-Verse – a remarkable accomplishment, and a film that still seems to be overshadowing Elemental in terms of cultural significance and social equity, even if that movie is a few weeks old and Elemental is just hitting theaters this weekend. It adds to the sense of changing tides in 2023 as Pixar continues to lose their firm grip on the medium that they worked endlessly to transform nearly thirty years ago.
And surely these changes in perception begin and end with the products their putting on the big screen (or on their streaming services at home – we’ll get to that shortly). There’s a new, somewhat common notion amongst critics and fans alike that Pixar just isn’t cranking out hit after hit like they used to. The days of bouncing from Toy Story to Monsters Inc. to The Incredibles are long gone. There are less expectations to make something great if your portfolio isn’t extensive, while the opposite happens when you have several classics to your own studio’s name.
Quite frankly, there haven’t been many recent Pixar movies to hit quite like those few aforementioned cultural touchstones. It doesn’t help that movies like Soul, Luca, and Turning Red were sent straight to Disney+, the studio where you let projects go to be consumed rather than experienced as they’re meant to. There’s significantly less responsibility to pay attention to a movie at home than there is in a movie theater.
Which brings us to Elemental, Pixar’s true return to movie theaters post-pandemic (In this alternate universe, Lightyear never existed. It’s a better world that way). For many, this may be the breaking point for what used to be a can’t-miss studio pushing the visual and narrative possibilities of animated movies. Although I’ve certainly found some positives for a few of their recent efforts – this is probably the best time to mention Onward, which still might be my favorite Pixar movie in years – it’s hard not to argue that even noteworthy releases as of late don’t stand up to the classics.
Elemental starts with an introduction to Element City, a world where each of the four major elements – water, fire, air, and earth – live amongst each other to mixed results. Bernie and Cinder Lumen are fire elements immigrating in order to start a new life. They do so by building the Fireplace, a convenience store for other fire elements. During their years of running the business, they face xenophobia from other elements because of the ways they mix with them – setting earth elements on fire, and an obvious inability to make contact with water. These differences have caused fire elements to be ostracized and relocated to the outskirts of Element City.
They have a daughter Ember, who’s quickly tabbed to take over the convenience store when her parents retire. Eventually, water makes its way into the store and she meets Wade, a water-based city official with a softer side who strikes up a flirtatious friendship with Ember despite their inability to live a normal life due to familial and physical restraints.
Reviews for Movies like Elemental
Elemental is a movie with obvious themes of building communal and personal relationships with those of other races, and not dividing the race or ethnic gaps further by strengthening centuries-old, xenophobic and racist acts – but I will say, this was all coming from a mile away. The trailers leading up to Elemental didn’t try to hide the movie’s themes, and I was a bit worried going in that Elemental may be too overbearing in its portrayal of these ideas. Many Pixar movies of recent memory have been pulled apart for being too preachy or obvious with its messages, but Elemental wraps them in a warm and heartfelt love story that actually won me over quite a bit – I thought it was arguably one of Pixar’s best movies in quite some time.
It begins with two main characters that are so likable and feel so lively. Both Ember and Wade feel like fully realized characters rather than caricatures for the larger themes that their movie is trying to explore. Ember struggles with the expectations that come with running the store her parents built when they moved to Element City, and whether she actually wants to do that for the rest of her life at all. Wade acts as the catalyst for many of these emotions, while he also deals with his own questions of identity and self-worth.
In many elongated scenes, Elemental works akin to the common romantic comedy. Ember and Wade stroll through the nooks and crannies of Element City as they reflect on their past experiences, and if it’s possible for the two of them to live in harmony with one another given their impeding family lines and physical makeup. I thought much of it worked effectively, and it rarely tries too hard to land the thematic purpose of the movie – it floats along and finds meaning in the overall narrative arc rather than pointing the finger at metaphorical figures representing the worst in our society.
Elemental is also a significantly funnier and outlandish idea for a Pixar movie, which I found refreshing given how poorly conceived Lightyear was, and how uninteresting movies like Luca and Soul were when you peeled back the layers of unique animation styles and cutesy characters. This movie lands many of the jokes and ideas, rather than musing around in them trying to find their own meaning in the process.
And you can feel how personal the story is from director Peter Sohn, who delivers a significant step up from his other director credit on Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur. Sometimes, you can feel that an idea and story has been rolling around in an artist’s mind for a while, and Sohn delivers on a project that has so much care and personality. Even if Elemental occasionally feels too sentimental and sweet, it never gets to the point of exhausting, which I felt was one of The Good Dinosaur’s biggest blunders. Sohn manages to balance the tone much better this time around.
So while I see many of the critiques that have plagued the release of Elemental, especially that the movie works as an odd allegory to loving your neighbors and accepting those from all backgrounds, it’s done in one of the most sincere manners yet. Peter Sohn delivers one of Pixar’s most unique, beautifully empathetic movies in years.
Where to watch Elemental: Disney+, VOD
Elemental Cast and Credits
Leah Lewis as Ember
Mamoudou Athie as Wade
Ronnie del Carmen as Bernie
Shila Ommi as Cinder
Wendi McLendon-Covey as Gale
Catherine O’Hara as Brook
Mason Wertheimer as Clod
Director: Peter Sohn
Editor: Stephen Schaffer
Composer: Thomas Newman
Elemental movie on Letterboxd
Elemental movie on IMDb