Elemental Movie Review
Elemental Movie Review Metadata
There’s something magical about Disney/Pixar films. Even if you don’t fully connect with the theme or the story, they’re impossible to not like. Elemental (2023) is a barely marketed film with low expectations that gives a high return.
Ember (Leah Lewis) is a second-generation immigrant of Elemental City, a utopia advertised as a melting pot for the elements: Water, Air, Earth, and Fire. Primarily designed and built for Water and maintained by Earth, Elemental City isn’t welcoming to immigrants from Fireland and getting around is a perilous exercise in not being snuffed out (yes, there is a message here) or burning things down, so Ember sticks pretty close to her own neighborhood. She has grown up in her father’s store, The Fireplace, and her father has promised that one day when she is ready, she will take over and he will retire to the life he has deserved. That time is long in coming because Ember has a quick flint temper, driving away customers and putting the shop at risk with her outbursts. During The Fireplace’s annual Red Dot Sale, Ember meets Wade (Mamoudou Athie), the Elemental code inspector. Wade is Water, friendly, dedicated, and super emotional. The Fireplace has multiple code violations that could destroy everything Ember’s father has worked for. Theirs is an unlikely friendship, since everyone knows fire and water don’t mix, as they work together to keep The Fireplace from being shut down, as well as a separate but parallel issue that threatens all of Firetown.
Elemental is going to seem super heavy-handed, as it’s obvious to adults that this is a story about family, loyalty, culture, sacrifice, and ultimately, privilege. In trying to correct the shop’s code violations, Ember is forced to navigate a bureaucracy in a city that is hostile and not made for Fire. She is a reflection of not only her upbringing but how she is treated when not in her own neighborhood. She is looked upon suspiciously, every accident or misstep is her fault, and she’s uncomfortable. Immigrant life in a nutshell.
Wade, on the other hand, lives well in Elemental City, is welcome everywhere, and has a naturally easygoing attitude that baffles Ember. Where Ember has difficulties connecting with people, Wade is well-liked and is naturally sweet. You can see where this is going and how it could potentially end up, but because this is Disney/Pixar and not Hallmark, the story is only part of the experience.
Elemental is a marvel of layered animation techniques that float through that uncanny valley between 2D and 3D. It’s hard to discern the physical set pieces from those created in a computer and that lends an edge of realism. Firetown is built to contain the combustible people with aged steel and soot, while on the literal other side of the tracks, the rest of Elemental City is bright and clean. The characters aren’t just vessels holding their essences, but the actual elements. The shadows of fire by night, and the sparkle of everything water during the day add a natural flow to the emotional undercurrent. Everything is rendered with care and it’s worth a repeat viewing just to appreciate the animation.
If this were a simple story of opposites attract, there wouldn’t be the depth of emotions and for a movie that is a mere 109 minutes, there’s an opportunity to really get to know all of them. It’s not difficult to understand the racism and bigotry on both sides and elements (heh) of selective inclusion are a little lopsided, but as this is aimed for families, not social science grad students, it presents immigration, integration, and acceptance in a way that doesn’t feel pandering or dumbed down. Elemental makes the differences and personality roadblocks string together aspects of the story without overwhelming the plot. In moving towards universal themes of international families, displacement, and acceptance, Disney/Pixar is at the forefront of creating movies with diverse creators. It could feel too mature and grown up if you’re not paying attention, but there is no better way of introducing empathy than through entertainment.
There is an emotional connection to Elemental you may not realize is happening until you’re sniffling in the final frames. It’s a tender well-paced story that sucks you in and that feels perfect for a backyard bonfire drive-in or poolside floating theater.
Elemental (2023) is rated PG for themes of racism and bigotry, lots of fire and water damage, mild language, and scenes of peril and destruction.