Some say that Pixar films are in decline after their latest releases. This criticism does not hold up when looking at the individual films. Onward, Soul, and Turning Red each explored different stages of life (and death) in unique and creative ways. Luca and Lightyear comparatively were misfires but, when viewed independently of the Pixar lexicon, were not bad movies. The problem was not quality but release strategy.
Disney’s release strategy for Pixar’s latest films involved a short theatrical window or a direct-to-streaming release. Debates about the merits of streaming versus theatrical releases aside, a stigma exists that makes the streamers a lesser entity. Once, the new Pixar film was an event film, something to get excited about from the first teaser through release. The Pixar movies were not failures because they were bad. The films did not make an impact because they were not given the opportunity to do so.
Enter Elemental, Pixar’s newest theatrical production. A not-so-subtle immigration story that follows young and fiery Ember (Leah Lewis, whose smoky timbre perfectly complements her character) as she attempts to save her father’s (Ronnie Del Carmen) store. The journey begins because of burst pipes that threaten the fire-based shop. Aiding her is the over-zealous city inspector Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie), whose liquid composition clashes with everything Ember knows. Together they journey into the city where water-, land-, and air-based residents live in harmony. Complications arise as the two opposites attract and develop feelings for one another.
The story is not original here. Stories about immigrants failing to assimilate due to prejudices after the promise of a better life have been told for decades. However, that does not mean it is any less relevant today. Director Peter Sohn has been vocal that the movie is based on his parent’s move from Korea to America when he was young. That authenticity is easily recognizable throughout in both little and big ways. A fire father prohibiting his daughter from dating a water suitor, a ramshackle section of the city where the fire elements live in relative isolation, and a well-meaning but tone-deaf comment from a water element about how a fire element speaks very affluently all illustrate the conscious and unconscious bias that immigrants have faced from the beginning of time.
With such familiar story beats, Sohn focuses on the development of the characters. Ember and Wade mark the first true romantic relationship seen in a Pixar film since Up. This in itself is a fresh take that helps the film stand out from some of its predecessors. The romance is sweet, and the sunshine and grumpiness trope employed works well. The characters better each other without the need to change who they are, an important distinction aided by the fact that they are fire and water.
Sohn wisely doesn’t focus too much on the logistics of world-building. Elemental City is presented as is, and it is okay for the audience to accept that at face value. For instance, logs seem to be the food of choice (hot logs, logs turned into coal bites), yet the Land elements don’t seem to mind. Fire elements seem to have control over whether what they are touching burns or not. These are questions that don’t need answers for Elemental to be enjoyed, and the filmmakers don’t bog down the story trying.
But where Elemental truly shines, as in most Pixar films, is in the visuals. Pixar animators have a way of allowing the beauty of light and color to tell their stories. There’s a simplicity in the visuals when compared to the recent Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, which allows this film room to breathe. The colors are bright and soothing. There’s a comfort and familiarity that helps the story and characters feel more accessible. A screengrab from nearly any scene between Ember and Wade could easily fit into any Chiaroscuro gallery. Like starring into a fire, it is beautiful and mesmerizing and will rank amongst some of Pixar’s best.
Seeing a gorgeous Pixar film on the big screen is always a visual treat. For Elemental to have a feel-good love story is a bonus. Even with a familiar plot, the creativity of the characters and visuals marks a return to form for a studio that has been accused of, albeit unjustly, declining in recent years. Sohn’s direction is personal and unmuddied by the logistics of world-building, resulting in a heartwarming final product that will leave the audience, like Ember, beaming.