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Pixar’s ‘Elemental’ Is A Conventionally Charming Film With Shades Of A Memorable Story – Review

There’s a new animation renaissance currently taking place, with the two biggest movies of the year so far coming from the animated world.

Now, Disney is ready to add their own entry into that mega-successful line-up with the original Pixar production, Elemental. Pixar itself is engrained in animation history with its technological innovation and critically acclaimed stories. A reliance on follow-ups and sequels to their modern classics has proved ineffective, which has led them to go back to basics. Original storytelling is Disney’s specialty, and Elemental is able to hold its own in the echelon of previously beloved films.

(Courtesy of Disney & Pixar)

The concept of a massively diverse society stuck in its traditional norms of different species remaining separate from each other is not new to Disney. The most recent and clearest example is 2016’s Zootopia. The comparisons have already become a major talking point in the lead-up to Elemental and will inevitably continue after its premiere. The outlook on Zootopia has evolved over the years, with more voices pointing out the dangers of oversimplifying such complex societal topics. The main criticism stems from boiling down the “different but equal” theme into a conclusion that although some creatures are more “naturally” violent, it doesn’t mean they’re all bad. The implications are egregious when opening up the allegorical tale into its real-life counterpart of systemic racism. The idea that “some of us” are more inclined to violence, but others have the ability to look past this in favor of some mutual understanding, carries horrifying historical implications. It may seem excessive to look this deep into a children’s animated movie, but these movies are made with the intention of explaining complicated topics with an age-appropriate, easy-to-follow allegory. Thankfully, Elemental bypasses most of these mistakes with a simpler story that is noticeably formulaic yet incredibly charming. 

Elemental takes place in Element City, a bustling metropolis where anthropomorphic embodiments of earth, water, air and fire live together. The story centers around Ember Lumen (Leah Lewis), the daughter of two hard-working fire immigrants who fled their homeland in search of a better life. The family’s entire livelihood is based around a community grocery store that sells authentic cultural items from their home country of Fire Island. The Fire people are noticeably discriminated against for their inadvertent flammable ways inconveniencing other elements. The Water people are presented as the majority and the most privileged of the elements. The conflict of the film initially becomes the potential romance of Ember and the plucky city inspector, Wade (Mamoudou Athie). Their opposing elements seemingly make it impossible for a working relationship. However, the premise evolves into a deeper analysis of the cost of fulfilling your family’s wishes at the expense of your own dreams. Basically, Elemental is at its best when tapping into Ember’s internal conflict rather than the predictable romantic story.

(Courtesy of Disney & Pixar)

The movie no doubt creates an endearing rom-com between Ember and Wade, complete with a dance montage, a meet the parents scene, and a “what have you always wanted to do?” moment. However, the conventional romance is not enough to make the film stand out from Pixar’s countless animated entries. The true highlight of Elemental is its protagonist’s desires clashing with her parents’ wishes. Leah Lewis delivers a special performance that demonstrates many different shades of her character to create a memorable Disney lead. Ember’s conflict grows from an essential crisis, not just with her love interest, but with her duties to her family. The first-generation Element City inhabitant attempts to embody the “perfect daughter” persona, especially with her parents being two notable representatives of the Fire community. It isn’t until she meets Wade that she admits that her dream has never been to inherit her father’s store but instead to explore the world while developing her glass-making skills. The rebellious act of secretly dating Wade is the first step Ember takes on her journey of self-discovery, where she reflects on her real goals in life. 

The backdrop of the varying Elemental communities opens up conversations about limitations and stale traditions tying people down. A Fire person, like Ember, is only allowed to go so far for fear of persecution or misunderstanding. Ember’s eventual balance with respecting her family and culture while exploring her own wants and desires is the high point of the film. However, it comes much later on and is not nearly discussed enough in comparison to the love story. The commonplace “opposites attract” premise holds Elemental back from truly rising above the previous Pixar productions. Although there is an inherent charming vibe to Wade and Ember, the family’s arc is simply more captivating and could have benefited from more consideration. 

Ultimately, Elemental improves upon the discriminatory societal allegory from previous Disney and Pixar films but gets too bogged down with a run-of-the-mill love story. The strengths of the film are truly special, with several moments that are prime to become fan favorites. Unfortunately, they are not analyzed enough and leave too much on the plate. Elemental is a mixed bag, with fascinating questions and concepts brought forward to the audience but eventually sidelined. That said, if you are a fan of animation, there is still plenty to enjoy, and I recommend checking it out for yourself. The quality animation and optimistic feel of the film are enough to make it a fun summer movie-going experience for the whole family. 

Rating: 7/10

Elemental hits theatres on June 16!

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