“Elemental” review: A flat but good-hearted film that can’t quite live up to Disney/Pixar’s heights

It’s easy to view “Elemental” as a Frankenstein’s monster of recent animated films, considering how instantly and overly familiar its themes, visuals and pace are in its first few minutes.

“Elemental,” which releases in theaters on June 16, once again drops us into a world where colorful, talking blobs confront big ideas via comic misadventures in a metropolis that mimics and critiques our own. That more or less describes not only the poignant, likeable 2015 movie “Inside Out” (Pixar), but also 2016’s just-meh “Zootopia” (Disney Animation), the same year’s abysmal “Angry Birds Movie” (Rovio Animation) and 2020’s well-intentioned “Soul” (Pixar).

In “Elemental,” the colorful blobs represent the four traditional elements — fire, water, earth and wind — which are all crammed into (what else?) a place called Element City. Fiery protagonist Ember Lumen (Leah Lewis) lives up to her name with a temper that literally blows up, but also a passion to please her father, Bernie (Ronnie del Carmen). She can’t fake a customer-service smile, but Bernie still wants her to take over the family shop in Fire Town, which serves and sells things that are on fire.

Meanwhile, Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie) is a weepy, sensitive water-person who also happens to be an official inspector in Element City. He’s sucked into a pipe and spit out in the Lumens’ basement, where he writes up the family for code violations even as their store drowns in inexplicable water leaks. There’s more to those than meets the eye, Ember and Wade suspect, and they’re right: With shades of Chinatown and other subversive, class-conscious mysteries, we’re shown how the privileged water people blithely imperil those around them with, for example, water-tram runoff that splashes onto and snuffs out parts of Fire Town.

The Lumen parents, who came to Element City from Fireland, are positioned as immigrants who have sacrificed everything to give their daughter the opportunities she wouldn’t have at home. Bernie and doting mom Cinder (Shila Ommi) don’t like water people and see them as inherently threatening, which is both literally true and a stand-in for the real-life racism and discrimination immigrants continue to experience in the U.S.

Elements collide when Ember and Wade realize their unusual, physics-defying romantic chemistry, which propels the plot and spirits them from the humble streets of Fire Town to the literal heights of Element City’s glimmering skyline. Supporting characters come and go in an undifferentiated blur, at least until we meet Wade’s extended family, the Ripples, led by Catherine O’Hara as matriarch Brook. She rises above her stock character with a fiery performance, and welcomes Ember wholeheartedly into the water world’s ritzy environs.

Director Peter Sohn, who’s one of four credited writers on the original story, was reportedly inspired by his own upbringing as the son of Korean immigrants in 1970s New York City. That affords the familial interactions an aching intimacy, but it also gives the class and cultural contrasts — for example, when Ember attempts to ride the Wetro train to downtown, surrounded by hostile water people — a meaty punch missing in the characters themselves.

The story is the real star here, despite some sparkling visuals that juxtapose near-photorealism with squiggly, cartoonish impressions. Minus that, the contrivances and buy-in feel extra heightened, a la Pixar’s grating “Cars” movies. Why do these ephemeral, anthropomorphic things that can float and flow need transportation, or walls, or food in general? The dialogue and characters aren’t charming enough to distract from that (although kids likely won’t overthink it the way I am).

Kudos to Pixar for telling a smaller story with big aspirations, and especially for making it an original one not based on existing franchises. “Elemental” has a big, beautiful heart and hyper-relevant message of tolerance and generational churn. It’s too bad that the rest of it often feels so wishy-washy and lukewarm.


Rated: PG
Run time: 1 hour 42 minutes
Where: in theaters
Score: 2 1/2 stars (out of 4)

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