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Pixar produces an Elemental success: Movie Review

Buena Vista Pictures
Buena Vista Pictures

Fire and water can never mix, right? What should and shouldn’t go together, and the beauty in forging new relationships of all kinds, is the beating heart of Elemental, the latest Pixar project that will have you leaving the theatre awestruck and teary-eyed.

Set in the truly dazzling Element City, multiple elements live together in what looks like a periodic table overhaul of New York, and that’s where the story begins. Despite some small plot holes, Elemental is striking success both technically and emotionally. 

The story has elements of an immigrant story, a romance and a self-acceptance tale that all fuse together to multiple brave climaxes.  All of these come crashing down on young adult Ember (Leah Lewis), as on her first day of taking over her parents shop in fire town, a watery city inspector named Wade (Mamoudou Athie) suddenly bursts on the scene.

What follows is Ember’s quest to, with Wade’s help, save her father’s shop, cement her future career, and lastly, challenge that her and Wade’s mutual ideas of each other might not be what they expected.

The standard of filmmaking with Pixar Animation Studios is a long history with some of the most acclaimed movies of all time. Elemental doesn’t quite rank among the studio’s best, but it’s certainly in the top half.

At its best, it has the deeply moving and sincere romance of 2009's Up and the mystery adventure of The Incredibles. There’s a lot to like here and there are several sequences of true beauty on screen as Ember and Wade explore their relationship together.

Ember's relationships with both Wade and her parents Bernie and Cinder are both nuanced and caring. Her drive to enrich them both while knowing their oppositions make for a terrific anchor in the story, and the compassion in Lewis and Athie's voice performances heighten them only further - especially in the romantic comedy plot.

Buena Vista Pictures
Buena Vista Pictures

The film, however, isn’t flawless. While the creative world building of Element City is detailed, it’s also sometimes left unexplored or unexplained. When it comes to mechanics of how this society functions, the who and what are often showed, but the how and why aren’t always shown on screen.

For example, what are the exact rules at city hall? When are elements welcome in each other’s neighbourhoods or not? What is the exact real-world cultural inspiration for the fire language - or is it a mix? These are some specifics that go unanswered.

There’s also some clunky, awkward dialogue scenes that sound hokey (especially the uncomfortable Cyclone Stadium scene), and at its lowest moments it seems like character traits are in support of only advancing plot, even if there’s a plot hole left behind.

But we’re also comparing Elemental to lofty expectations. The level of plot detail dedication Pixar has in Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Wall-E, Coco and as recent as 2020's Soul is the highest standard in filmmaking - not just animation. It would be fair to critique that should be the standard for all movies, but it’s also fair to say comparing anything to perfection is an unfair benchmark.

Elemental succeeds where it counts: it’s technically dazzling, and there’s both a deeply affecting family story and romance story told by interesting, richly voiced characters. There is a continuously growing conflict and a satisfying solution.

On most metics, Pixar has created a terrific film. On an emotional level, Elemental is a masterpiece and a delight for all ages. As a collective art experience with a large audience, it’s the must-see movie of the summer.


9 out of 10

G, 1hr 43mins. Animated Family Comedy Romance.

Directed by Peter Sohn.

Starring Leah Lewis, Mamoudou Athie, Ronnie del Carmen, Shila Ommi, Wendi McLendon-Covey and Catherine O’Hara.

Now Playing at Film.Ca Cinemas, 5 Drive-In, Cineplex Winston Churchill & VIP and Cineplex Oakville & VIP. Also in IMAX.