Elemental Review: Stunning Visuals Uplift a So-So Story

With gorgeous visuals and some very charming voice-over performances, Disney/Pixar’s latest animated entry, Elemental, has a lot going for it. But with an overly-simplistic narrative and heavy-handed moral messaging, Peter Sohn’s feature gets bogged down in the telling before ever really getting off the ground.

As the film opens, audiences are introduced to Element City, a metropolis where residents representing the four elements – earth, wind, fire and water – live together in what, at first, appears to be perfect harmony. The bustling urban centre is overflowing with incredibly imaginative inventions from studio animators. There are airships that balloon out when filled with cloudy, airy passengers but deflate when empty, and cafes that regularly water their earthy, tree-like patrons, leaving their leaves and sprouts healthy and glistening in the sun. It’s a stunning Pixar-ian showcase and you can’t help but wish the story would slow slightly so you could properly appreciate all this overview has to offer.

But it’s quickly apparent that things aren’t quite as jolly or welcoming for one particular element: fire. Water is everywhere, both in the form of some of their fellow city dwellers (looking like kinder versions of a liquid T-1000) and also in the constant stream of waterfalls and water fountains pouring down from on high. The fast-moving flames must stay vigilant to avoid being snuffed out or extinguished on the regular as their blissfully oblivious neighbours go on about their business.

The fire people have created their own enclave known as Firetown, which is where our heroine Ember Lumen (Leah Lewis) lives with her immigrant parents, Bernie (Ronnie Del Carmen) and Cinder (Shila Ommi). The couple arrived in Element City years ago from Fireland, determined to start a new life, learn a new language, and provide a host of better opportunities for their baby daughter. Bernie now runs a popular community shop, The Fireplace, but because of who they are, the Lumens are barred from entering exhibitions and are often turned away from other institutions, faced with signs that declare “No Fire”.


Bernie, in particular, bristles against any ‘watering down’ of the Fire culture or of the shop’s offerings, and the entire family is determined to succeed despite the constant, everyday racism that grinds them down. Ember adores both her parents and trains day in and day out to take over the family business once her father retires. She is determined to make them proud, despite that responsibility weighing heavily on her shoulders. Under more stress than she realizes, Ember is given to fiery, explosive bouts of frustration that eventually put the store’s entire future in jeopardy.

It’s during one of these destructive blow-outs that Ember meets Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie), an adorable droplet of a man who also happens to be a City Inspector forced to issue citations that may shut The Fireplace down. Of the two major plots, the family dynamics and the love story, the developing relationship between Ember and Wade receives noticeably shorter emotional shrift. That they become so entwined and devoted to each other so quickly isn’t particularly unusual in a Hollywood fable, but it does require a certain level of buy-in that this film doesn’t allow for or earn. When the film gets to a point where you should be rooting for them as a couple against the odds, it’s hard to feel invested enough to really care. In fact, both plots feel like they could sustain their own film and in jostling for screen time, they both lose out.

That said, it’s clear that writers John Hoberg, Brenda Hsueh, and Kat Likkel enjoyed writing delightful moments for this unlikely duo, and they run the gamut from cheesy but cute to downright touching. They leave you wishing there were more moments just like them to deepen our understanding of who they are. It’s hard not to be drawn into their dynamic though when you have scenes like Ember’s introduction to Wade’s touchy-feely, water family. To be charmed as she’s welcomed warmly by tiny cousins Marco and Polo, and even by Wade’s emotional mother Brook, voiced to perfection by Catherine O’Hara.

As they (and the audience) discover that Ember has a knack for using her excessive heat to blow and mould glass, Wade’s family insists that she dream big and pursue her passion. That we’ve never really heard Ember yearn for a different life – one where she is free to follow her artistic ambitions – seems like a major omission in the story. It feels tacked on – not as an important emotional truth or discovery, but as a convenient plot point to put her at odds with her family. The fact that it is Wade and his family – the very personification of white, upper-middle-class society – who insist she put aside her current life plans to journey down a new path feels particularly cringey. The Ripples, as kind and friendly as they are, have always had the freedom to dream big and have never experienced the pressures of cultural or generational responsibility. They are oblivious to people with different experiences and so leave little actual room in their worldview for true diversity.


Likewise the film, somewhat ironically, leaves little room for nuance. It operates from a very binary position where life decisions are black and white (or in this case, fire and water). That Ember must step outside of her comfort zone to achieve true happiness, instead of finding joy and fulfillment with her family, feels a bit frustrating in its simplicity. Elemental’s narrative is so rife with possibility, that as a whole the film feels like a missed opportunity to tell a more original tale. There are moments in Ember’s journey that are incredibly grounded and relatable, where effort has been made to weave together a more layered story, but there’s little to no follow-through. There are other moments that require huge stretches of logic and imagination, that feel unearned and far too convenient. With a stronger, more layered story, the latter can often be forgiven, but when it’s not, it becomes hard to ignore.

Despite its plot problems, the film is a true feast for the eyes from start to finish. Ember’s artistic talent allows Elemental’s animators to truly show off some gorgeous, sparkly creations and they’re given the chance to stretch and impress during some of the bigger set-piece scenes throughout, including one in Cyclone Stadium, where seemingly all of Element City (with Wade’s boss Gale Cumulus) has turned out for a match of a sport that looks like an impressive cross between basketball and Quidditch.

Though it doesn’t completely live up to expectations, there is a lot to like about Elemental. Thomas Newman’s fantastic score adds depth to some of the more emotional scenes, particularly between the Ember family members. He’s woven together something that speaks of a treasured past and a tentative future full of potential, that makes something wonderful out of something old and something new. It perfectly complements the film’s intricate animation and eye-catching visuals.

Elemental’s messages about prejudice and generational differences are certainly admirable and well-meaning, if unsubtle. And it’s not so surprising that Sohn, the son of Korean immigrants, felt particularly drawn to the material and actually dedicated the film to his parents. Unfortunately, and despite all good intentions, the final product is just not among the studio’s very best. As a family day out at the movies though, the visuals may be just enough to make it a big-screen experience worth your time.


Disney/Pixar’s Elemental is out now, exclusive in theatres.