Since its very first feature film nearly three decades ago, Pixar has used the imaginative prism of animation to demonstrate how we might better understand the world if it was presented in a slightly altered way. Talking toys, talking animals, and talking cars were the start, and in recent years, our emotions and souls have also been personified. The studio’s latest animated movie, Elemental, offers a heady new concept, building a marvelous world populated by elements to tell a story with tremendous subtext buried beneath a generous portion of puns — and heart as well.
The plucky protagonist of Elemental is Ember Lumen (voiced by Leah Lewis), a fiery resident of Fire Town who has always dreamed of taking over her father’s convenience store. Bernie (Ronnie del Carmen) loves his daughter but sees how her hotheadedness often gets in her way, and he has a great distrust for water elements, for whom the great metropolis of Element City was designed. When water inspector Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie) is sucked into the store’s pipes and threatens its livelihood with numerous code violations, Ember becomes determined to do whatever she can to save her father’s life’s work, forging an unexpected bond with the kind of element she would never have dared engaged with outside of this circumstance.
When it comes to its overall conception, Elemental feels closest to its Pixar brethren Inside Out, as it imagines a world in which elemental identification stands in for race or national origin. This is very much an immigration story, with Bernie and his wife, Cinder (Shila Ommi), arriving from Fireland speaking a foreign language and being repeatedly turned away from otherwise rentable homes because they are fire. Prejudices run rampant among all the elements, and signs declaring “No Fire” bar Ember and her family from opportunities and the ability to truly feel as if they belong.
Thankfully, what could potentially have come off as a preachy story of acceptance is instead wonderfully balanced by the sweet, genuine nature of Wade and his family members, who cry excessively whenever they reminisce together about anything even remotely touching. Like their tears, the film is also overflowing with puns that inundate each scene with a clever energy — one that’s explicitly stated at times and left to a visual gag hidden in the background at others. It’s a surefire way to enhance the viewing experience for adults, who will surely appreciate having another level on which to enjoy this film, which should also please younger audiences.
Directed by Peter Sohn (The Good Dinosaur), Elemental features vivid and eye-popping colors, and the detail with which the fire and water elements are constructed is marvelous. There is a precision to the design of the sprawling city and each facet of it, and that’s on full display from the film’s opening moments as an awestruck Bernie and Cinder arrive to see what magic awaits them. It’s reassuring to see that each successive Pixar effort feels like a challenge to innovate more, and the creation of Element City is a magnificent accomplishment. Its landscapes and engineering are well-matched by the constantly-shifting appearances of its elemental residents.
The voice cast of this animated delight is led by Lewis and Athie, two accomplished if lesser-known talents who nonetheless bring a youthful spark to their roles. Ember is a protagonist most reminiscent of Merida from Brave — self-assured and not quite aware of how the world works, but determined to do whatever it takes to find out. The story of Elemental flows naturally and is enhanced by its visual techniques, thereby resulting in an extraordinary ride that delivers just what Pixar has always promised — a refreshing and invigorating journey into a new animated world of love, friendship, and adventure.
Disney and Pixar will release Elemental in theaters worldwide on Friday, June 16.