If anything, Disney-Pixar has shown us that animated features do not need to be boxed into just being a medium exclusively for children. Of course, there will be bright colors, childish characters, and jokes abound, but the studios realized that adults shouldn’t have to suffer through juvenile materials while taking their kids to the movies. Starting with Toy Story and continuing with their latest Elemental, they figured out their mostly foolproof formula: keep all the elements (no pun intended) kids love about animated movies and subtly incorporate themes and jokes that will resonate with adults.
When the formula works, these Disney-Pixar joints are some of the best movies of all time—the first three Toy Story movies, Inside Out, and Up to name a few. Sometimes, they veer away from what works and the movies are generic and abysmal (see the entire abominable Cars trilogy). And, at times, the movies are just average or maybe above average. In these cases, there are spurts of pure genius but it often gets bogged down by its flaws. Elemental belongs in this B-tier of Disney-Pixar movies in that it works more often than it doesn’t but is unable to reach its full potential, similar to Luca and Finding Dory.
Ember (Leah Lewis), a fire person, lives in Element City where all the different elements (Earth, Wind, Air, Fire) reside. Most of the elements are able to coexist but many of them hold xenophobic views toward the fire people. Ember’s family runs a store she will inherit one day, but only once she controls her temper. During a big sale, Ember blows a fuse and erupts the pipes in the store. She meets Wade (Mamoudou Athie), a water person who works as a health inspector, whom she doesn’t like at first but becomes friends with as he helps save her family’s store, and perhaps more.
Even though Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse set new heights in animation earlier this month, the animation in Elemental is top-tier. Even though the quality may fluctuate, the animation just keeps getting better and better in these Disney-Pixar movies; Elemental may be their best-looking movie yet. There are no humans in this film, so there are no stereotypical Pixar humans to be found. Each of the elements are animated beautifully, specifically Ember and the fire people whose “hair” burns like a fire throughout the movie—an amazing attention to detail. The shots of Element City are absolutely stunning to the point some frames didn’t even look animated, rather emulating a digital picturesque shot.
However, the stunning animation can’t mask an overstuffed plot. Simply put, there are too many threads and none of them are fleshed out. There’s an immigrant storyline with the fire people experiencing xenophobia, a father-daughter arc between Ember and her dad, star-crossed lovers, and a truly underdeveloped, not-sure-what-the-point-of-this bureaucratic angle. Out of all these storylines, the love story and father-daughter subplot are the only ones that shine and Elemental would’ve majorly benefited from focusing on those two aspects.
The love story, in particular, is incredibly winning and quite effective. Both Lewis and Athie give energy and personality to their characters and, even though it’s something that we’ve seen before, it really works in this movie and I was rooting for this couple throughout the runtime. I really wish we got more of Ember and Wade’s love story because the scene of them on their first date is up there with some of the best stuff Disney-Pixar has done. Thomas Newman’s unique and melodious score—with hints of classical Indian music—adds so much emotion during these scenes and is something you’ve never heard in one of these movies.
As I mentioned earlier, the secret formula involves subtly incorporating grown-up themes in these animated films. In Elemental, the message of the movie has the subtlety of a sledgehammer. The metaphors in it are very clear and reiterated throughout the movie. Children won’t realize it, but adults will see the makers trying extremely hard to make an overarching point. Had they toned this element down and narrowed their attention, it’s not impossible to see Elemental in the same tier as some of the S-tier Disney-Pixar movies.
While it certainly has its flaws, Elemental is definitely worth a watch. When it hits its stride, you can’t take your eyes off the screen. The animation is beautiful, the story is compelling, and the characters are a ton of fun. Periodically, the movie experiences some bumps that stop it in its tracks, which is a huge bummer. I admire the joint studios for trying to do something different with the animation, score, and story, and hope they continue to do so. Next time, however, they need to get back to the formula that got us Toy Story and stay in their element.