A film review by Craig J. Koban October 9, 2023


2023, PG, 102 mins.

Leah Lewis as Ember Lumen (voice)  /  Mamoudou Athie as Wade Ripple (voice)  /  Ronnie del Carmen as Bernie Lumen (voice)  /  Shila Ommi as Cinder Lumen (voice)  /  Wendi McLendon-Covey as Gale (voice)  /  Catherine O'Hara as Brook Ripple (voice)  /  Mason Wertheimer as Clod (voice)  /  Ronobir Lahiri as Harold (voice)  /  Wilma Bonet as Flarrietta (voice)  /  Joe Pera as Fern (voice)  /  Matthew Yang King as Alan / Lutz / Earth Pruner (voice)  /  Clara Lin Ding as Little Kid Ember (voice)  /  Reagan To as Big Kid Ember (voice)

Directed by Peter Sohn  /  Written by John Hoberg, Kat Likkel, and Brenda Hsueh

Nearly every time that I screen a new Pixar animated effort, I frequently ask myself "What has happened to this once dominant studio?"  

If you look at the zenith of their creative powers - from the release of the first TOY STORY in 1995 and everything they made in the near twenty years after that - then it's apparent that they were undeniable pioneers in animation, churning out one iconic and critically adorned classic after another.  Lately, though, my reaction to their work has been lukewarm at best.  I liked 2022's LIGHTYEAR (although not a high pedigree work from them) and found 2020's SOUL to be an audaciously unusual, but somewhat forgettable, delight.  Pixar's attempt at a pure fantasy in 2020's ONWARD, though, left me feeling mostly cold and indifferent.   

Now comes ELEMENTAL, which is the studio's 27th (wow!) feature animated film and the single most expensive animated film (with a budget north of $200 million) in history.  On paper, this Peter Sohn (THE GOOD DINOSAUR) directed affair has very noble-minded ambitions and themes, which were derived from his own experiences growing up as a son of immigrants in 1970s New York.  ELEMENTAL commendably tries to delve into relatable story threads about the challenges of refugees in a new land and facing prejudice as a result (Stohn's parents were Korean immigrants that moved to the Bronx and opened an business).  Set within this tale of immigration and settling woes is a Romeo and Juliet romance subplot of opposites from two different cultures defying their parents to come together.  In ELEMENTAL's case, the people of various classes are not humans, but rather members of four elements - earth, fire, water, and air - that try to exist peacefully together in a Big Apple-esque mega-city.  

I can see what Stohn is trying to do here with his film and the messages it contains are topical and will resonate with many viewers, but it's the overall handling of the messaging and world building that's problematic and hurts his overall efforts.  And considering what ELEMENTAL is trying to say here with its fantastical premise and settings, it's all too surface level and not as deep and penetrating as it wants to be.   

Ember (voiced by Leah Lewis) is the single child of Bernie and Cinder Lumen (Ronnie del Carmen and Shila Ommi), an immigrant "fire" family unit that owns a convenience store in Elemental City.  The metropolis in question is home to the other three aforementioned elements, but Bernie and Cindy decide to plant their roots and start their business in the most segregated Fire Town where the rest of their people reside.  They're kind and nurturing parents to Ember and work hard to achieve their dreams, but they're deeply suspicious of all others not of their ilk.  Ember is a curious, but hot-tempered, child that sometimes lets her anger get the better of her.  Despite her anger management issues, Bernie and Cinder want the best for their daughter so that she can inevitably take over their family business, which is something that she's not overly keen to do.  One day, Ember's mood reaches a boiling point and leads to multiple holes being punctured in the store's pipes, culminating in water spewing out everywhere (definitely a scary problem if the owner's are made of fire and their business caters to fire people).  Walking (or should I say cascading) in is building inspector Wade (Mamoudou Athie), who's a water being and - after inspecting the damage - is forced to report to higher authorities.  This could spell doom for the Lumen family business.



Oddly enough, Wade and Ember - despite being made of water and fire respectively - get more drawn together through time and even as Wade is pressured to report her family's business by sending a citation to his cloud-formed boss, Gale (Wendi McLendon-Covey).  This leaves the Lumen's in a very hairy situation, but concurrent to this is Wade and Ember's growing understanding of one another.  When he feels that he has had a breakthrough with her, Wade even brings her over to meet his water family, which lives a life of relative aquatic luxury (this meet the parents moment proves to be challenging when Wade's family dwelling was obviously not designed with fire people in mind).  In time, Wade and Ember become close, so much so that he decides to assist her family in ensuring that their lifeline business does not get shut down for good.  There's one large elephant in the room: Ember's father will probably go nuclear if he discovers that his daughter's new boyfriend-to-be is not of their element.  In his tunnel-visioned mind, elements do not mix under any circumstances.  Wade and Ember feel otherwise.   

As mentioned, I admired the ideas that ELEMENTAL is tackling here when it comes to race and race relations, not to mention how newly landed immigrants have their own unique struggles when it comes to assimilating in new foreign lands.  I have no doubt that Stohn's film is a deeply heartfelt and personal one for him, having a family that - no doubt - experienced their own form of melting pot hardships as Korean refugees decades ago in America.  I also liked how ELEMENTAL tackled parental expectations and examined how the Lumen's have a very narrow viewfinder for where they see their daughter moving forward, and her relationship with Wade challenges their tightly held beliefs of outsiders.  These are hefty and weighty issues for an animated film to tackle, so Pixar deserves some credit for not just trying to make another simplistically toyetic money-maker.  The film hinges on the sweet romance between Wade and Ember, voiced well by Athie and Lewis respectively.  They have good vocal chemistry and really imbue their characters with considerable heart and soul and they intrepidly move forward with their interracial union that has more problems beyond upsetting her family.  It's one thing for Bernie to forbid this type of relationship, but how does this relationship even get to - shall we say - first base when Ember's flaming face would douse out Wade's perky moist lips?

Unfortunately, ELEMENTAL forces many questions upon viewers, some of which prove mightily distracting from an overall world-building perspective, which I found both confusing and lacking in satisfying follow-through.  The basic premise of the four elements existing within the vast Elemental City is explained well enough and we get to understand (well, somewhat at least) what levels of the societal spectrum they occupy (the water people are the affluent one per centers that come and go anywhere as they please, the fire people are essentially stand-ins for Asian, Middle Eastern and European nationalities, whereas earth and air people are much more ill defined).  I understand that Stohn is using shorthand here when it comes to the basic elements standing in for real world cultures here, but that has the negative and unintentional side effect of painting many cultures with one simplistic brush stroke.  In this film's world, the water people are all represented as the rich upper class and the fire people are all represented as downtrodden immigrants.  Disseminating the rich complexities of real world culture in this narrow manner is more than a bit dicey and serves the purpose of working against Stohn's own honorable intentions with the film.  The opposites-attract appeal of the Wade and Ember romance is nicely done, especially the way it's tied to how some groups try to remain closed in (in understandable attempts to maintain their cultures) and unwilling to accept others within their communities.  Then there's how immigrant parents put intimidating expectations on their kids' already burdened shoulders to pass on their legacies to future generations.  There's so much potential richness in the storytelling here, but ELEMENTAL's commentary on social inequality and prejudice is simply too broad and lacking.  This is a high concept film that's low on actual execution and payoff.   

ELEMENTAL also comes apart in its final act in terms of how the story brings Wade and Ember together, but then drives them apart through obligatory misunderstanding romcom troupes and then resolves their conflicts in a fairly neat and tidy fashion (that, and Stohn seems reticent to embrace what could have been a much riskier and darker ending for the feature, which I think is a miscalculation, and instead opts for a love conquers all denouement).  Coming a few years after SOUL (I consider that to be Pixar's more appealingly and intriguingly weird films in how it dealt with a jazz pianist dying and then getting whisked to the afterlife and into a body-swapping adventure), ELEMENTAL feels a tad too soft pedaled, pedestrian, and unwilling to take calculated risks with its underlining material.  Of course, this is yet another unqualified technical triumph for Pixar, and ELEMENTAL is visually dense and wonderful to look at like any of its predecessors (even though, yeah, I didn't fully understand some of the dynamics of how this world functions, like, for example, how do fire people's clothes not burn or how does an undulating water being walk and sit down on solid objects?).  Regretably, ELEMENTAL is an ambitious-minded, but ultimately second-tier Pixar effort at best and one that I found more tedious to sit through than most.  My heart wanted to embrace these characters and their story, but my inquisitive brain just kept checking me out.

And maybe - just maybe - Pixar has re-think their overall approach.  There's an aesthetic sameness that's starting to permeate their productions.  They're pristine and exquisitely detailed technical marvels, yes, but after the outside-of-the-box thinking and groundbreaking cutting-edge techniques offered in the superb SPIDER-VERSE films that bucked status quos and trends for animated films, perhaps Pixar needs to go back to the drawing board for inspiration and do something seriously novel and fresh.  It seems so elemental, at this point.

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