I try really hard not to oversell films, especially ones that have a long history of being lauded with hyperbole regardless of merit. Simply existing, statements like “The best Pixar film in years!” is the kind of pull quote slapped across every trailer and induces more eye rolls than any kind of intrigue. I’m here to tell you that I’m a believer, as “Elemental” is a resounding triumph of Pixar storytelling that harkens back to the kind of animated wonder that made them so profound in the first place. I’m not entirely sure if debuting “Elemental” at The Cannes Film Festival was some sort of overcorrection for poor release of “Turning Red,” but I can’t imagine a worst place to premiere an animated film like this.
That’s not a slight, but more a swipe at Disney, who seemed to be unsure as to whether or not they had all the confidence in the world in their new feature or had zero confidence in it and wanted to test it among the stuffiest of critics in France. I may be a stuffy critic, but this one has earned my praise. “Elemental” is a true return to form for Pixar, a beautiful love story with immigrant narrative undertones, packed with plenty of humor and heart that is bound to make you cry and want to hug your parents.
Directed by Peter Sohn (“The Good Dinosaur,” a criminally underrated feature) from a screenplay by John Hoberg, Kat Likkel and Brenda Hsueh, “Elemental” marks the 27th feature film from Pixar. Sohn had pitched the idea to Pixar back in 2015, and has been working on it ever since. The film tells the story of two immigrant parents from Fire Island who leave their homeland to start a new life in Element City. Pushed to the fringes of the city, Bernie and Cinder Lumen start a business and raise their daughter Ember, who is set to take over the shop when her father finally retires. Unable to control her temper, Ember accidentally bursts some pipes below the shop that allows city inspector Wade (a water element) to enter her life and write up a bunch of citations for a largely ignored shop. Water isn’t suppose to flow to Fire Town, and the unlikely pair is tasked with getting to the bottom of the leak. Their journey may turn out to give them both more than they bargained for, with Ember discovering her own ideas of what her life could be like if she pursued her own dreams and both her and Wade possibly falling in love and breaking the number one rule laid out by her parents: elements don’t mix.
Though relatively straight forward in its plotting on the surface, “Elemental” has a lot more to say about its overall themes that serve as the typical adult commentary often found in Pixar films. It is very much about growing up, falling in love, and following your dreams. But underneath all of that, this is a touching immigrant story, one that beautifully crafts resonating subplots about traditions, family values, and cultural identity. Ember is a girl of two worlds; that of her parents deeply held old ways and the new experiences of growing up surrounded by other elements. Wade is an open minded dreamer, with parents who foster his freedom and creativity and urge him to live his life to the fullest. These things seem simple, but anyone that has any kind of relationship with immigrant parents and traditions will immediately resonate with “Elemental.” These things never feel exploitative, either. It all feels extremely personal for Sohn, and you can see him pour his upbringing into the more subtle core of the film.
Mamoudou Athie as Wade is instantly lovable, and imbues the kind of raised in a bubble (pun intended) naivety to his performance that helps sell the love story. But the real stand out is Leah Lewis as Ember, who’s conflict between being the dutiful daughter and being true to herself come through tremendously in her performance and delivery. Lewis has the kind of recognizability to her voice you swear you’ve heard before, but then you go and look her up and can’t really identify anything that would tell you where you know here from. That’s a compliment, too, demonstrating her incredible ability to be every immigrant daughter growing up in two opposing worlds trying to hold it altogether. Her flame burns bright, and sheds light on the more heartfelt moments.
Though one of the better outings for Pixar, “Elemental” does stretch its runtime a bit, running out of steam as it heads towards its third act. This is largely due to the lack of risk in the overall plotting. The film is a new take on an old formula, and follows that standard boy meets girl adventure story with little variation. This could certainly be a detractor for some, and outside of the themes mentioned that landed for me, it is pretty basic on the surface and can feel a bit redundant. Despite that, it does manage to feel somewhat fresh even if it’s using familiar ideas, as most Pixar films largely center or parental relationships or friendships. This is very much a love story, a classic tale of two people from different worlds defying the odds to be together. Sure, that seems pretty standard and you’d be right to ask yourself if we really need another one of these. But love stories are a staple of cinema, and when done well like it is in “Elemental,” it can feel special even if it does feel a bit formulaic.
The film is visually stunning, with every element feeling unique and vibrant and constantly alive. It’s not quite as boundary pushing as “Across the Spider-Verse,” but “Elemental” doesn’t really need to be as that’s not really what the film or the studio itself is about. Thomas Newman’s score is also delightful, capturing a unique sound that feels purposeful to the story and characters. It’s really Lauv with his summer pop banger track “Steal the Show” that got me, serving as the theme song is now officially on repeat on my Spotify playlist. The song absolutely slaps, and captures the magic of love between the two characters. It is a solid track by itself, but when put into the context of the film, it unlocks a well of emotional beauty that just feels perfect for the love we watch unfold.
I genuinely loved this film, and I was not expecting to heading in. “Elemental” may fumble the bag with lackluster marketing and an ill advised premiere at Cannes, but I really hope audiences are able to see past all of that because there is a great film waiting to be experienced. However formulaic or safe it may be, “Elemental” is why love stories stand the test of time in cinema, and wonderfully captures how it feels to be an immigrant family in an ever changing world.
Yes, “Elemental” made me cry. More than once. And if you’ll excuse me, I need to go listen to “Steal the Show” a few more times before bed.
Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
“Elemental” is now playing in theaters. You can watch the trailer below.