A romantic comedy from Pixar? Um…finally? On the one hand, the vaunted animation studio known for boundary-pushing films such as Wall-E, Inside Out, Up!, and Toy Story, is attempting something new with their first rom-com, Elemental. But what difference does it make when that rom-com subscribes to a tired old formula, one that continues a worrying trend that Pixar has fallen off into creaive laziness. With truly groundbreaking films out there such as Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, Pixar’s latest simply can’t compete.
Set in the fictional Element City, a lively place where people comprised of Earth’s four prime elements reside. There are the Earth folks, who have all types of green life growing out of them. There are the Air people, who resemble walking clouds. The majority of folks tend to be Water, liquid people who can basically move fluidly wherever they want. They are chiefly opposed to the Fire people, whose scorching hot nature threatens to turn Water into steam. Fire people are regularly treated as outcasts, undesireables often told to go back to Fireland, the place where they originated.
It’s against this backdrop of discrimination that we meet Ember (Leah Lewis), a young Fire elemental whose parents emigrated to Elemental City after their home was destroyed. Starting from nothing, they built themselves a home and a successful business, but have largely stuck to themselves, as Fire people tend to do. That is until city inspector Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie), a sensitive Water elemental, enters their lives and becomes fast friends with Ember.
Fire and Water elementals don’t mix, but these two find they are more alike than different. When they discover a threat to all of Element City, it’s up to the two of them to stop it. But along the way they must all in love, too. The folks at Pixar are geniuses at building fully-realized worlds, and Elemental does feel alive in all of the best ways. It’s a bustling utopia of pipes and waterways and skyscrapers, resembling New York City. Honestly, it and the movie as a whole resembles a non-animal version of Disney’s terrific Zootopia, and follows many of the same themes of cultural diversity and harmony. While always a welcome message, it’s also hard not to pinpoint the similarities between them. Even some of the subplots, like an information stop derailed by a sloth-like Earth elemental, feel like they were cribbed from elsewhere.
While the little details are impeccable, like the way Water elementals’ mustaches look like crashing waterfalls, some aspects are confusing. We see that certain Fire elementals can succumb to sickness, but it was unclear what can actually harm any of them. The film finds humor in the many ways fire can screw up a Water elemental, like when Ember’s father forces Wade to eat flaming hot food that literally turns him into a puddle of steamy anguish. In another, a young Wade gets soaked up into a sponge (why do sponges exist in a place like this anyway??) and is stuck for hours, but turns out is okay. That said, I did like that Wade and his family, being Water elementals, can cry at the drop of a hat and often do. Comparitively, Ember and her family are hot-tempered and prone to explosive outbursts. The Earth and Air elementals aren’t nearly as developed, and feels like an attempt to hold something back so a sequel can explore them further.
But will there be demand for a return to Elemental? Honestly, this film doesn’t really make a case for it. While the world Pixar has created is cool and it delivers a heartfelt message about family, the treatment of immigrants, and more, much of the film follows basic rom-com tropes, pulled right from the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan playbook. Kids, who would seemingly be the target audience, aren’t going to have any interest in this “will they or won’t they kiss?” courtship between Wade and Ember. In our screening, nearing the moment when that question is about to be answered, a kid a few rows from me could be heard saying “This is dumb” to laughter from her friends. That’s not a good sign.
Pixar is capable of better than this. Elemental isn’t a terrible movie but it is an underwhelming one, far beneath what we know Pixar is capable of.
Elemental opens in theaters on June 16th.