Elemental (2023) Review

Elemental marks the return of Peter Sohn, whose feature-length directorial debut in The Good Dinosaur eight years ago was greeted with lukewarm responses, at least by Pixar standards. Personally, I loved that movie, thanks to its stunning animation, likeable characters and charmingly simple, yet heartfelt storyline. His second directorial effort is more ambitious in its concept, using the four elements of fire, water, earth and air to represent them as different races of elemental peoples. They live together in a metropolis called Element City and here, we first met the fire elements — the immigrant Lumen couple, Bernie (voiced by Ronnie del Carmen) and Cinder (Shila Ommi) — who left their homeland looking to start a new life.

From there, they raise their daughter, Ember (Leah Lewis), hoping that one day she’s qualified enough to take over their family-store business. However, Ember is prone to temperamental issues — a result that often scares away customers. Then, one day there was an unexplained water leak that ends up flooding the store. This is where Ember met a water-element city inspector Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie). They didn’t get along at first (hey, fire and water don’t mix, remember?) but as the movie goes on, an eventual spark happens between the two of them as you would normally see in romantic comedies.

In fact, the story — credited to John Hoberg, Kat Likkel and Brenda Hsueh — embraces the familiar genre from point A to point Z. It may look as if Pixar has finally resorted to well-worn clichés and yet, the familiarity works well in its favour since it helps that Ember and Wade share a wonderful chemistry. I particularly love Leah Lewis’s husky-voiced and feisty Ember the most and she’s easily one of the best Pixar characters I’ve ever seen. Her subsequent romantic relationship with Wade is sweet and heartwarming, even though they are technically not supposed to be together, given their elemental roots as fire and water. Not to mention she grew up in a family with a conservative father (Ronnie del Carmen in a solid voice work), who has deep reservations about water peoples.

A scene from "Elemental" (2023)

The mixed metaphors of immigrants as well as the interracial and forbidden relationship between Ember and Wade are efficiently told without getting all preachy and heavy-handed. Speaking of Wade, Mamoudou Athie brings a mix of quirkiness and sensitivity (he tends to get easily emotional) to his goofy but charming water guy. Elemental also touches upon the relatable family dynamic between Ember and her parents, bringing an extra layer beyond the movie’s romantic-comedy tropes. And that is not all, as the movie explores one’s personal dream and even with all the multiple themes combined, credits go to Sohn’s sure-handed direction for keeping everything together.

Likewise, a Pixar movie wouldn’t be complete without mentioning about its visuals. The animation is remarkable from the vibrant and stunning landscape of the Element City to the painstaking details that go into rendering the photorealistic water effects. The character design is distinctive and since the movie focuses on different elements, this allows Sohn and his team of animators to showcase their unique elemental abilities. For instance, we see Ember can change the colour of her flame whenever she touches different mineral rocks. Thomas Newman’s score is equally praiseworthy, combining an eclectic mix of Indian instruments that adds to the movie’s diverse tone.

Here’s a friendly reminder: try not to show up late since there’s a Pixar short you can’t afford to miss titled Carl’s Date — a great companion piece to Elemental since both stories cover the themes of relationship. Written and directed by Bob Peterson, it focuses on Up’s Carl Fredricksen (Ed Asner) being reluctant on going for a date for the first time ever since his late wife Ellie’s passing in the 2009 film. The short does a splendid job of the chemistry between the cranky Carl and his talking dog (voiced by Bob Peterson).