There was a time when the arrival of a new, wholly original movie from Pixar – like Peter Sohn’s joyful rom-com Elemental – would feel like an enormous event. Families would pack out multiplexes for months as they watched, rewatched, cried, and re-cried at the latest creation from Hollywood’s most innovative animation house. But sadly, things have changed.
Elemental arrives at something of an awkward time for Pixar. Over the pandemic-affected years of 2020 and 2021, a number of its new movies were released directly on Disney Plus, bypassing cinemas altogether – even when the majority of restrictions had been lifted.
Meanwhile, the lion’s share of Disney’s major movies now seem to have the tiniest of theatrical windows before they show up on the company’s streamer. The buzz – or the Buzz – was almost entirely gone by the time Lightyear showed up, and became an enormous commercial disappointment.
It’s a shame, really, that Elemental arrives against that backdrop because the film is charm personified – a lovely, inventive return to form for the studio behind many of the best animated movies ever made. A decade ago, in the era of Inside Out, it would have been a monster hit.
The movie takes place in Element City, which is a cosmopolitan utopia populated by the four classical elements – earth, wind, water, and fire.
However, it’s less of a perfect society for fire elements, who were the last to make a home in the city after their native land was decimated by a storm. They face discrimination from the other elements – the first thing that happens to them is their names are changed because they’re difficult to pronounce in English – and they have developed an understandable distrust for them.
Fire element Ember (Leah Lewis) is set to take over the family store from her hydrophobic father, Bernie (Ronnie del Carmen), as long as she can control her anger. She has a chance encounter with water element Wade (Mamoudou Athie), a council official who’s a stickler for the rules to such an extent that he gets the store shut down for its dodgy plumbing.
Unlike the best Pixar movies, Elemental doesn’t feel the need to break the mold at all, telling a story inspired by the best rom-coms. Narratively, Elemental is as formulaic as it gets – the meet-cute is pretty textbook, and there’s even a dating montage.
However, Sohn and the three credited screenwriters have constructed a fascinating world, with plenty to say about the experiences of real immigrant families. In fact, a declaration during the credits thanks “everyone who shared their family stories with us”.
So while this might not be a masterclass of narrative originality, it does have an essential truth and humanity at its heart. That goes a long way. Warmth radiates from every corner of the movie, supported by some terrific visual gags – this world and its unique character design provide so much opportunity for slapstick.
Athie and Lewis deliver committed voice performances, managing the sort of chemistry that is often near-impossible to create when you’ve got two people recording their dialog separately in voice-over booths. Wade and Leah are believable both as antagonists and as a couple, with the script focusing on making their changing relationship the center of the story, even ahead of the allegory. It’s a smart choice, using the allegory to inform the character rather than having it be the focus in itself.
That’s not to say that the allegory doesn’t hit hard. The fire elements face daily micro and macro-aggressions from the other groups, and these stack up with a real sense of authenticity. That authenticity exists behind the camera too. Sohn thanks his Korean immigrant parents in the credits, while lead actors Lewis and Athie were brought to the USA as children from China and Mauritania, respectively.
The overall effect is one of sincerity, joy, and appreciation. In a world where so much cinema for kids is built on self-aware snark and characters gurning their way through one-liners, Sohn’s movie is breathtakingly earnest – sometimes to a fault.
It wears its massive heart on its sleeve, whether that sleeve is made of water or fire. There’s no reason for it not to be a massive success. After all, it has all the elements.
If that has piqued your interest, you can find out how to watch Elemental and learn if there’s a Pixar short before Elemental. We’ve also explained why one bit of design almost looked like a scary Lord of the Rings character. Alternatively, look back at the last Pixar movie with our Lightyear review and Tim Peake interview.
Elemental isn’t top-tier Pixar, but it’s a sweet and heartfelt tale with an important message about tolerance and diversity. It’s also the studio’s most romantic movie to date, so there will be tears.