‘Elemental’ Review: Heartfelt, Half-Baked And Full of Dad Jokes

This Pixar fable — about a romance between a fire girl and a water guy — takes on diversity and failing infrastructure. Though that may make it sound more interesting, and political, than it is.

Ember (left, voiced by Leah Lewis) and Wade (voiced by Mamoudou Athie) in ‘Elemental.’ PIXAR

Pixar’s Elemental is a movie about failing infrastructure, though that may make it sound more interesting than it actually is.

ELEMENTAL ★★ (2/4 stars)
Directed by: Peter Sohn
Written by: John Hoberg, Kat Likkel, and Brenda Hsueh
Starring: Leah Lewis, Mamoudou Athie, Ronnie Del Carmen, Shila Ommi, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Catherine O’Hara
Running time: 102 mins.

It takes place in Element City, a gleaming megapolis where the four substances that comprise the physical universe— air, water, fire, and earth— are cutely anthropomorphized in the manner of Disney (DIS) animals. Here, instead of tromping about woodlands like Bambi and his friends, they complain about each other during their morning commute.  

Earth present as mossy trees that serve mainly as bureaucratic functionaries. Air are fluffy clouds of different colors and play a Rollerball-Quidditch mashup called Air Ball at Cyclone Arena. Water seems to be the dominant group; they keep the trains running (public transportation is called the “Wetro” in this dad-joke-opolis) and live in sleek luxury apartment towers like the one in which Sharon Stone resided in the ’90s erotic thriller Sliver

Then there are the button-nosed Fire, immigrants from Fireland, who occasionally speak and sing in their native tongue, Fireish. A vague amalgam of Asian, Middle-Eastern, Slavic and several other cultures and identities, the Fire folks are the cinematic equivalent of the “Ethnic” aisle in an outdated supermarket. (One ends up longing for the sparkling specificity of Domee Shi’s 2022 Chinese-Canadian menstruation fable Turning Red, also from Pixar.)  

Leah Lewis, the young star of Netflix’s 2020 Cyrano de Bergerac update The Half of It, lends her smoky voice to Ember; she is a twentysomething Fire who stands to inherit Fireplace, her father’s corner store, if only she can keep her literally explosive temper from bursting the pipes in the basement. When one such accident draws in a weepy regulatory inspector named Wade, a Water voiced by Mamoudou Athie (one of the few memorable non-prehistoric characters in 2022’s Jurassic World: Dominion)a culturally frowned upon—and scientifically challenged—romance begins to percolate.     

The film’s saving grace is the genuine spark between the defensive and impulsive Ember and the emotionally exposed and empathetic Wade. But it is the intricately thought-out character designs and the decision to play against gender tropes that fans that flame. Unlike Disney’s wonderful 2016 buddy comedy Zootopia, the movie lacks a clear understanding of urban social orders, resulting in a flimsy social context within this made-up world.

Ember and Wade in Element City. Pixar

Directed and conceived by Pixar mainstay Peter Sohn (he helmed 2015’s The Good Dinosaur and provided the voice of the robot cat in last year’s thematically-rich yet much maligned Lightyear), Elemental’s ideas about representation come across as simultaneously heartfelt and half-baked. 

A consideration of diversity that fails to address justice and social stratification reduces cultural identity to jokes about accents and spicy foods. (A specialty on the Firehouse menu are Charnuts, freshly burned and condensed pieces of wood that boil Wade’s insides when he swallows one.) Willfully bypassing any discussion of social inequity, Elemental has put itself in the unenviable position of leaving its heroes without any real adversaries. 

Instead, Ember and Wade must use the former’s budding abilities as a glassblower to repair a crumbling dam, a breach of which threatens to extinguish the residents of Firetown. (While many of this country’s infrastructure inequities are byproducts of a history of both racism and classism, in Elemental their origins go unquestioned.)   

In its current era—which kicked off with 2009’s The Princess and the Frog, a film that featured its first Black princess—Disney and its subsidiary Pixar have made concerted and often laudable attempts to address representation in the animated classics of the company’s past.

But as the $200 billion-plus corporation has faced pushback from forces seeking to score political points by making Disney the target of a drummed-up culture war, its attempts have become no less plentiful but increasingly toothless. This is evident both with Elemental and even more keenly with last year’s wholly uninspired misfire Strange World.   

Any discussion of diversity that doesn’t include the context of how it functions in society isn’t progress; it’s advertising.   

Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.



‘Elemental’ Review: Heartfelt, Half-Baked And Full of Dad Jokes