Any new Pixar film is cause for celebration. While many modern animation studios have tried to keep up with the consistently excellent quality of the Disney/Pixar collaborative brand, few have resulted in their staggering frequency of masterpieces. Coming on the heels of Turning Red and Lightyear, Elemental reminded me most of Inside Out—definitely a good thing, considering that emotional movie is my favorite in Pixar’s catalogue. Director Peter Sohn, also behind the studio’s underrated road trip adventure The Good Dinosaur, has delivered another touching movie that may especially resonate among American immigrants. I never thought an elemental rom-com about the immigrant experience was in Pixar’s wheelhouse; the studio again proves that no material is too adult for their colorful lens of creativity.
Assumingly standing in for Ellis Island, the opening of Elemental finds two little fire parents making their way into the iconic Element City. They arrive in a rickety boat from far-away Fire Island, getting their passports stamps and new Elementalized names created: their unpronounceable titles back home are now simply just Bernie (Ronnie Del Carmen) and Cinder (Shila Ommi). There are many rooms for rent in Element City, but no one wants to live with fire people. Against all odds, the duo start a family after they purchase the rickety ruins of a massive leaky home. Adorable Ember (Leah Lewis) as Bernie builds up a shop as Fire Town’s central hub, The Fireplace. Flash forward years later, and there’s a burgeoning community of fire people peacefully coexisting far from the other Elements. It’s the American dream, in animated form.
In a world built expressly for other types of “races” that include sentient clouds, drops of water, and treefolk, water people are not treated with much kindness of equality. Elemental may not be subtle with its message, yet the team must be commended for accurately depicting the struggles of integrating to new country. As Ember matures into her own person, she begins to second-guess whether she wants to be take over her father’s legacy to run The Fireplace or pursue her own dreams. Bernie’s retirement is looming, and if Ember can just impress him enough by controlling her temper, he will hand over the keys to the castle. To say Ember runs hot would be an understatement—during a red-dot sale, she has a meltdown that literally bursts their pipes.
The city’s new building inspector, Wade (Mamoudou Athie), washes in through a pipe. Sobbing his way through citations, Wade observes so many things in The Fireplace that he has no choice but to report them. Ember pursues him through the city, along the way forced to board the Wetro subway system and even squeeze through a tiny tunnel in one of my favorite shots from the film. When Ember finally catches up to Wade, he is so moved by her story that he says he would happily tear up the citations… had he not already sent them through. Ember and Wade team up together to find the source of major water leaks—can there be any way to save The Fireplace from certain doom? Wade and Ember begin to fall for each other romantically, sparking a secret romance. Ember shows Wade the colorful lights she can change that match different crystals, and he shows off by skipping across the open water like a stone to form a rainbow.
There’s only one major problem: here in Element city, Elements don’t mix. Ember and Wade have a yin/yang energy that balances their two personalities in a unique way. While Ember almost always is on the cusp of going “full purple,” and feels deeply confused about her direction in life, Wade is unpredictably emotional, tuned into his feelings, and a genuinely sweet water-person. Wade’s family knows about Ember and happily meet her, though one of them offensively says he “barely even notices” an accent. Catherine O’Hara as the matriarch who can’t stop crying over her precious Wade leads to several memorable moments. On the flip side, Ember’s parents aren’t as involved. Bernie is told Wade is the “food inspector,” and not made privy to details about their relationship, nor that The Fireplace may be on the brink of collapse. Cinder, a “smoke reader,” secretly smells true love in the air for her daughter.
Elemental started off a little rocky, and part of me was afraid the film would be nothing more than clever wordplay and punny jokes. I did have fun trying to pick out the various elemental jokes, ranging from the obvious (a theater playing a film called Tide and Prejudice) to the subtle (lighter fluid baby formula). Where the movie wins me over is in its exploration of family tradition, love, and father/daughter connection. A special blue flame that once connected all of their Firish brethren back home now rests at the center of The Fireplace. Around every bend, Bernie emphasizes how much random traditions mean. When a simple majestic bow can cause tears to flow, Elemental earns its place among a stellar 2023 animation lineup.
As with Pixar’s best, themes of finding oneself and our purpose in this life are strong concepts that anyone can relate with. Elemental’s love story already feels timeless and overflowing with charm. I’m not sure how they keep churning out genuinely great content so consistently, but thanks to Elemental’s strong emotional foundation, this animated flick is another excellent entry into the Pixar canon.
Elemental screened at 2023’s Tribeca Film Festival, and makes a splashy “food inspection of the heart” in theaters everywhere on Friday, June 16th.