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The Independent Critic

Leah Lewis, Mamoudou Athie, Mason Wertheimer, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Catherine O'Hara, Shila Ommi, Ronnie del Carmen, Joe Pera
Peter Sohn
John Hoberg, Kat Likkel, Brenda Hsueh
Rated PG
103 Mins.

 Movie Review: Elemental 
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It says an awful lot about the expected quality of a Pixar motion picture that Elemental is a wee bit of a disappointment, a familiar film that's dazzling to watch yet narratively unsatisfying with a paint-by-numbers story that lacks the emotional resonance and immersiveness that we've come to expect from Pixar's true greats. 

Elemental isn't a bad film. Far from it. Let's face it. There are animation studios that would love to reach the highs of Pixar's lows, however, Elemental isn't from one of those other studios and in the Pixar world Elemental is simply far too fundamental. 

Elemental takes place in Element City, a creatively rendered locale where Air People, Fire People, Earth People, and Water People all co-exist rather peacefully though largely living separate lives in different sections of the city. There are not so subtle hints of tensions between the elements with immigration among the themes approached by Elemental. There is also a narrative focus on interracial romance, a theme that intrigues but never really comes to life amidst this rather ordinary animated rom-com. 

Ember (Leah Lewis) is the daughter of hard-working Fire People, immigrants who've built a simple yet meaningful existence for themselves that becomes threatened by Wade (Mamoudou Athie), a Water Person and city inspector whose dutiful way comes to threaten the family business that Ember has been destined to inherit "when she's ready." Of course, after their initial conflict sparks fly, at times literally, between Ember and Wade and Elemental largely spirals into its rom-com state of being as the two deal with their differences, their cultures, their familial obligations, and much more. 

Unfortunately, it all adds up to very little other than an undeniable sweetness that makes Elemental watchable even if it never really completely captivates. The most captivating relationship here is not between Ember and Wade but, instead, between Ember and her father, Burnie (Ronnie del Carmen). There's an endearing, emotionally honest energy between the two that constantly satisfies as Burnie strives to give his daughter a good life and Ember wrestles with her sense of obligation and an entertaining anger management issue. Much like most people living in Element City, Burnie has raised his daughter as segregated from the other elements. Unsurprisingly, this upbringing is challenged once Wade enters the picture. 

Pixar regular Peter Sohn (The Good Dinosaur) directs from a script by John Hoberg, Kat Likkel, and Brenda Hsueh that tries to balance complex and compelling ideas yet never really fully develops them. There's a tension, for example, between Water People and Fire People yet what's presented here lacks a real sense of urgency amidst urgent circumstances. Elements of racism feel underdeveloped here. The best Pixar films have managed to tackle very difficult and even dark subjects while maintaining a kid-friendly tone. Elemental feels afraid of its darker themes and instead becomes resolute in being a rom-com that acknowledges the obvious difficulties of, essentially, fire and water dating. 

And yet, I must confess amidst all my dissatisfaction I can't deny I still enjoyed Elemental. It feels like a mid-tier Pixar experience. While it doesn't quite restore Pixar's cinematic sheen that has been a bit fogged since the COVID-19 pandemic, it's a visually arresting film that will undeniably be much more entertaining on the big screen. If you're watching closely, the animation astounds with little touches that left me thoroughly engaged and even awed. The story doesn't keep up to the visual awe, but it's engaging enough to still make Elemental worth watching on the big screen.

One of my professional peers found Mamoudou Athie's Wade a major disappointment. I, on the other hand, found him to be the film's highlight and would likely sit down with the film again just to hear Athie's entertaining and empathetic vocals. While I never entirely bought into the chemistry between Wade and Ember, separately I enjoyed their vocal work. 

Wendi McLendon-Covey and Catherine O'Hara also provide some energized dazzle in supporting roles while del Carmen quietly delights as the paternal Burnie who loves his family, seemingly hates Water People, and worries about his daughter's temper. 

It's hard to imagine anyone rating Elemental as one of Pixar's classics, however, even a low-to-mid tier Pixar flick is better than a good majority of the animated features out there. With just enough charm and social relevance to draw us in, Pixar's Elemental may not be the film we want it to be but it's still a warm and entertaining crowd-pleaser. 

Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic