As long as she can remember, Ember Lumen (voice of Leah Lewis) has been gearing up to take over the Fireplace, the convenience store her father Bernie (voice of Ronnie Del Carmen) built up from a ruin in the Firetown district after emigrating to Element City from Fireland against his own father’s wishes. Trying to keep her fiery temper under wraps during a red tag sale, Ember ducks into the basement to let off steam, but the power of her release causes pipes to burst, a Fire Person’s worst nightmare, sucking in Element City inspector Wade Ripple (voice of Mamoudou Athie), a Water Person, in “Elemental.”
Laura's Review: B-
From 1995 through 2010, Pixar represented the crème de la crème of animation, their narratives richly inventive and packed with emotion, their animation ground breaking. Things began to backslide in 2011 with their first non-“Toy Story” sequel, “Cars 2” a disappointing follow-up to their only mediocre original. Since then, they may have won four Oscars for Best Animated Film, but only “Inside Out” was greeted with the kind of excitement that was the norm in their earlier years (this critic actually preferred “Finding Nemo” to that film and is still staggered they released their best original in years, “Turning Red,” onto the Disney+ streaming platform instead of theaters).
I mention “Inside Out” because their latest, "The Good Dinosaur" director Peter Sohn’s sophomore effort “Elemental,” not only also premiered at Cannes, but appears to resemble that film’s depiction of emotions with its own characterization of the four elements. But they really only can be compared on the most superficial of levels as “Elemental” is more of a fable on prejudice against immigrants wrapped within a coming-of-age/opposites attract romance. It also represents some ground-breaking animation strides in personifying fire and water with their accompanying technical lighting, transparency and reflectivity obstacles. What it lacks in Sohn’s conception and television series writers John Hoberg, Kat Likkel and Brenda Hsueh’s screenplay is the type of delightful world building wit Pixar was once known for.
Bernie and Cinder Lumen (voice of Shila Ommi, who I mistook for Shoreh Aghdashloo) arrive in Element City and immediately have their Fireland names reinterpreted by an immigration clerk for more Element City friendly versions. They are greeted with fear and disgust by Water, Earth and Air landlords who refuse to rent to them, eventually wandering into the more downtrodden part of the City known as Firetown. But while Sohn’s point is clear, he’s chosen to anthropomorphize an element which is undeniably harmful, one which can burn the wood sprouting from earth elements along with any other flammable material and boil and evaporate water (which, granted, is also a formidable threat to fire), a sticking point he’ll eventually find a workaround for, at least for Ember and Wade, in his last act.
While Ember is not amused by Wade’s presence, especially after he cites her for multiple building code violations, Wade immediately steps in to help when he learns her family back story. Escorting the anxious Ember into Elemental City, Wade attempts to retrieve his tickets in the office of bureaucrat Earth person Fern (voice of Joe Pera), a character from the school of “Monster Inc.’s” Roz, only to learn they’re already headed to his boss Gale (voice of Wendi McLendon-Covey), an Air person who’s left the office for the day to cheer on her beloved Windbreakers in a playoff game at Cyclone Stadium. It is here that Ember will watch Wade turn the entire crowd in his favor, a talent she wishes she had in dealing with Fireplace customers. But is how Wade sees her that will change the course of their futures.
While the fire people’s flickering flames are held within recognizable shapes (Bernie is stout while his daughter sports more of an hourglass shape), water people are something like reflective, transparent Caspers distinguished by their ‘hair,’ Wades, for example, suggesting a cresting wave, although his mom (voice of Catherine O’Hara) looks more like a Seuss creation. Both can morph into something different, fire people losing half their heads when doused with water (eating a stick or two ‘fans’ their flames), water people flowing through small openings or dispersing into droplets. Air characters are represented by clouds, earth the most unimaginatively designed, Ember’s young admirer Clod (voice of Mason Wertheimer) continually growing flowers from his armpit.
Sohn and his crew have come up with a few nice world building gags, new parents Bernie and Cinder taking their infant out in a rolling Weber kettle grill, Air people transported in dirigibles which deflate when they disembark and reinflate with new passengers. Ember, who welds broken pipes with her fiery hands, comes into her own when she transforms sandbags into glass, later impressing Wade’s family (which includes twins Marco and Polo) by turning a broken glass into an elaborate pitcher. Ember’s on-the-fly creation of a hot air balloon creates one of the film’s more romantic sequences. But the Ripple family’s predilection for crying at the drop of a hat grows irksome and while Ember is given a goal to pursue, Wade is simply a privileged supporter. “Elemental” has some nice moments, but it is uneven and its four elements are never once shown working in unison.
“Elemental” is preceded by Pixar short “Carl’s Date,” an “Up” sequel originally slated for Disney+’s ‘Dug Days’ series which finds Dug (writer/director Bob Peterson) coaching a panicked Carl (voice of the late Ed Asner) through preparations for his first date since Ellie died. It’s fun to revisit these two and Dug’s advice is equally useful (‘I’d buy her a toy’) and hilarious (‘smell her backside’).
Disney releases "Elemental" in theaters on 6/16/23.