Elemental (United States, 2023)

June 14, 2023
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Elemental Poster

Emerging from its Cannes debut, Elemental has received mixed reviews. The reason for the lack of enthusiasm seems to be related to expectations by some critics that the film doesn’t take a more aggressive stance in the culture wars. There’s a lot of complaining about what the film doesn’t do as opposed to a more balanced approach to examining what it does do. This latest Disney/Pixar film is a romantic comedy that uses allegory to touch on issues as wide-ranging as bigotry, immigration, and children trying to live up to parental expectations. Although the film provides material for adult viewers to chew on, it is not as deep or thoughtful as some of the Pixar classics. I was in many ways reminded of Turning Red (which, due to its direct-to-Disney+ release, is among the least-watched of the animation studio’s productions).

I found Elemental to be endearing. There are narrative and world-building issues, primarily during the final third, but the milieu is impressively rendered and the relationship between the main characters, fiery Ember Lumen (Leah Lewis) and watery Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie), is sweetly developed. There’s more going on, however, than a tale of opposites attracting. Also in Elemental’s crosshairs are aspects of the immigrant experience, including the tendency toward closed communities for minorities in a foreign location and the weight of expectations endured by the next generation to honor the sacrifices of their parents. Although there is a recognition of the systemic racism that exists in Elemental’s society, digging into this isn’t on the filmmakers’ agenda and the movie should not be penalized for that.

Ember is the lone child of Bernie and Cinder Lumen (Ronnie del Carmen and Shila Ommi), an immigrant couple who own a convenience store in Element City’s Fire Town. Hard-working but prejudiced against non-fire elementals, Bernie and Cinder want the best for their daughter. In their opinion that means controlling her combustible temper and taking over for Bernie at the store. Whether this is what Ember wants isn’t up for debate. She is a “good daughter” and good daughters fulfill their parents’ expectations, especially when those parents have traveled to a new country and built a business from scratch. 

Wade is the son of Brook Ripple (Catherine O’Hara), a widowed water elemental who lives a life of luxury but has liberal views regarding members of the other three elements. Wade works as an inspector and it’s in that capacity that he first meets Ember. When an explosion of her temper causes water pipes in the store’s basement to rupture, Wade is sucked through them. The initial friction between them turns into companionship as Wade helps Ember do what’s necessary to avoid the store’s closure due to code violations. The two become increasingly closer until Ember comes to the terrible realization of how Bernie will react if he discovers that his daughter has been seeing someone outside of her element.

The cultural clash between fire and water forms the skeleton of Elemental’s body. The movie lacks a traditional villain. Bernie has his daughter’s best interests at heart (as he sees them) and most everyone else is either helpful or neutral. Like the best rom-coms, the storyline focuses on the interaction between the two lead characters and the developing romantic tension. Other aspects of the narrative, including a leaking gateway, represent underdeveloped plot devices that are disposed of once their purpose has been fulfilled.

There are, of course, four elements. The majority of Elemental focuses on fire and water but air elementals and earth elementals appear in supporting roles. Mason Wertheimer plays Clod, an earth elemental with a crush on Ember, and Wendi McLendon-Covey plays Gale Cumulus, Wade’s air elemental boss. The film’s limited screen time (103 minutes) doesn’t allow for a complete exploration of the city’s many cultural divides and intersections, which is one of a few minor disappointments. Element City is a more complex and contradictory place than what we get to see.

Elemental looks amazing. Every time I think a movie has reached the animated pinnacle, along comes another title to raise the bar higher. Every frame in Elemental is vivid and replete with detail. In real time, there’s far too much going on to absorb. The visuals – from the amazing skyline shots to the less ostentatious presentations of the main characters – are crisp and colorful. Thomas Newman’s score is nondescript but this isn’t a musical so it obeys the cardinal rule of not being intrusive. The voices are primarily provided by lesser-known actors (Catherine O’Hara arguably being the highest profile name), which enhances the viewer’s immersion.

This is director Peter Sohn’s second feature for Pixar and it represents an improvement over 2015’s The Good Dinosaur. Sohn, who gets a “story by” credit alongside screenwriters John Hoberg, Kat Likkel, and Brenda Hsueh, has stated in interviews that the roots of Elemental lie in his childhood. His parents immigrated to the United States from Korea and, despite not speaking English, they opened a convenience store in the Bronx that catered primarily to first and second-generation Korean Americans. The authenticity of this aspect of the immigrant experience is evident in the screenplay and that insider’s perspective makes this seemingly simple movie something a little more rewarding.

Theatrically, Elemental is preceded by the short movie “Carl’s Date.” This 10-minute sequel to Pixar’s Up offers one of the final performances of Ed Asner and functions as a nice (albeit delayed) epilogue to the classic 2009 film.

Elemental (United States, 2023)

Run Time: 1:43
U.S. Release Date: 2023-06-16
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Genre: Animated
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1