‘Elemental’ Review: A Watery Pixar Romance
There is a long tradition of stories about parental issues in feature animation, dating all the way back to the earliest days of Walt Disney’s studio. Back then, the movies were mostly about children grappling with trauma inflicted by (or stemming from a separation from) their moms: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, Dumbo, Bambi, and so on. Eventually, overbearing dads got thrown into the mix too: The Little Mermaid’s King Triton, Moana’s Chief Tui, the list goes on and on.
Familial pressure is not Pixar Animation’s most frequent theme, but it’s there in a fair number of their movies, including Finding Nemo, Ratatouille, Brave, Turning Red, and both features directed by Peter Sohn: The Good Dinosaur and now Elemental, in which a daughter of immigrants struggles to please her dad and honor her family’s traditions while also listening to her heart — which harbors feelings for a man (or, um, body of water) her father would never approve of because he comes from a wildly different background.
That conflicted heart belongs to Ember (Leah Lewis), a sentient fire elemental who lives in a place called “Element City” with her doting shopkeeper dad Bernie (Ronnie del Carmen) and fortune teller mom Cinder (Shila Ommi). Ember’s parents moved to Element City when Cinder was pregnant; finding the town’s existing water, earth, and air elemental residents hostile to their arrival, they opened their own shop called “The Fireplace,” which became the central hub of a Chinatown-esque ethnic neighborhood of other fire elementals.
Bernie should be retired — he struggles with his daily tasks and regularly hacks up thick plumes of smoke— but he’s still working at the Fireplace because he thinks Ember is not ready for the responsibility of running the store on her own. Her fiery temper keeps getting her into trouble — including her most recent (and quite literal) angry blowup, which burst a pipe in the shop’s basement.
When water starts pouring in, so does Wade (Mamoudou Athie), a water elemental and municipal inspector who was investigating a mysterious water leak when he was sucked into the Fireplace’s plumbing system and deposited into Ember’s already chaotic life. Wade initially tries to get the Fireplace shut down for various code violations; Ember chases him to City Hall, hoping to keep the store open. In other words, it’s a classic rom-com opposites attract meet cute. Pretty soon Ember and Wade grow closer, even though their proximity to one another could be hazardous to their health. Can a fire being and a water being touch without turning each other into vapor or smoke?
Contemplating the logistics of life for the denizens of Element City should be part of the fun of a film like Elemental, and sometimes it is. Pixar’s unparalleled designers and animators let their imaginations run wild as they unveil the physical world of this film. Every frame of Elemental is crammed with clever sight gags and witty puns, like the “Kiss Me, I’m Firish” shirt one fire elemental wears. The city’s mass transit system (the “Wetro”) runs on an elevated river of water, sort of like a log flume track, and the train cars themselves are shaped like ocean waves. The beings populating Element City are a sight to behold as well; the fire characters like Ember and the water characters like Wade are forever shifting before our eyes like real flames and flowing streams. The mere act of looking at this movie and everything in it is just fun.
But emphasizing how the world of Element City functions invites the viewer to do the same — and the internal logic of this place never seems to add up in the way the imaginative ecosystems created by Pixar in movies like Monsters Inc. and Inside Out did. Some aspects flat-out don’t make sense. To cite just one very glaring example: Why is some water in the movie alive — like Wade and his family — while other water is just ... water? The whole plot of the movie hinges on that insentient water, and the strange leak that Wade was trying to locate. But the explanation of the leak feels unsatisfying and incomplete. There are vague hints of some kind of conspiracy at work that never come to fruition, as if a subplot got cut from the film because it was slowing down Ember and Wade’s love story.
If that’s the case Elemental’s creators sorely misjudged the strengths of their story; Wade and Ember’s romance is its weakest part. Wade in particular is, well, a bit of a drip. I think he’s only supposed to be grating in his first few scenes; gradually he’s supposed to wear down the audience’s defenses the same way he does to Ember. In practice, he’s mostly just annoying. Excessively sentimental and constantly bursting into tears — depicted as cartoonish spouts of water erupting from his eyes — he’s so endlessly supportive and so focused on enabling Ember’s journey of self-actualization that he might qualify as cinema’s first Manic Pixie Dream Puddle.
The stronger element (sorry) of this story is the relationship between Bernie and Ember, and how it underscores the way the expectations of every generation winds up resting heavily on the shoulders of the next. I’m not sure using different elements as a metaphor for the immigrant experience quite works beyond its broadest strokes, but it does at least add some heft to Elemental’s scenes between father and daughter, which do build to an affecting if extremely predictable conclusion. But then how could it not be predictable? Animated movies have been telling these kinds of stories for almost 100 years now. It’s just that unlike so many of Pixar’s movies, the more you scrutinize Elemental, the less you find.