June 15, 2023
by Carla Hay
Directed by Peter Sohn
Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional Element City, the animated film “Elemental” has a cast of characters representing fire, water, air and earth.
Culture Clash: A young fire being is under pressure to take over her family’s convenience store business while she has a potentially controversial romance with a young water being in a society where fire and water are not supposed to mix.
Culture Audience: “Elemental” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Pixar movies and stories about following your heart.
“Elemental” is a good but not outstanding animated film about societal prejudices, family obligations,and true identities. The movie is marketed to look like that it’s equally about the four main life elements: fire, water, air and earth. Viewers should know that the characters representing air and earth don’t get as much screen time as the fire and water characters. “Elemental” had its world premiere at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival and its New York City premiere at the 2023 Tribeca Festival.
Directed by Peter Sohn, “Elemental” has dazzling visuals paired with a story that’s very predictable but charming. John Hoberg, Kat Likkel and Brenda Hsueh co-wrote the “Elemental” screenplay, which is padded out with adventure scenarios that all lead to the inevitable way that this movie ends. The movie has some blatantly tearjerking moments toward the end, but nothing that would be too upsetting for the children who are a large percentage of “Elemental’s” target audience.
“Elemental” tells the story of two beings from very different cultures who find themselves drawn to each other, despite everyone around them saying that they shouldn’t be interacting to each other. The movie’s narrator is Ember Lumen (voiced by Leah Lewis), whose family immigrated from Fireland to Element City. The residents of the multicultural Emerald City consist of fire beings, water beings, earth beings and air beings. Fire and water are considered the least compatible of these four elements. And so, water beings and fire beings are taught not to mix with each other.
Ember is an only child. Her parents Bernie Lumen (voiced by Ronnie del Carmen) and Cinder Lumen (voiced by Shila Ommi) are hard-working and somewhat overprotective of Ember. Bernie owns and operates a convenience store named Fireplace, where Ember has been working part-time since she was a child. Ember has a “fiery temper,” so her customer service skills are very flawed.
Bernie has been training Ember to become more patient and even-tempered (he recommends that she take deep breaths before getting angry), but Ember is fairly stubborn. Ember is expected to take over the family business after Bernie retires. However, what Ember really wants to do with her life (but she’s afraid to tell her parents) is to make glass art.
Several years after Ember began working at Fireplace, she is now the equivalent of a young woman. One day, she loses her temper in the store, which accidentally causes the store’s basement to get flooded. Out of the flooding comes a water being named Wade Ripple (voiced by Mamoudou Athie), a water inspector who’s been sucked into a pipe. It’s the “meet cute” moment for Ember and Wade.
You know where all of this is going. Ember is wary of and sometimes hostile to Wade, who is sensitive and likes to cry a lot. For most of the movie, Ember and Wade’s relationship repeats this pattern: Wade shows that he’s attracted to Ember, but she tries to shut down any possibility of a romance because she’s been conditioned to think that fire and water should not mix.
Through a series of circumstances, Wade and Ember end up going on some antics together. A friendship starts to develop between them. When Wade finds out that Ember has a talent in making glass sculptures and other art, he encourages her to pursue this passion.
As already shown in the “Elemental” trailer, Wade and Ember eventually meet each other’s families. Wade’s mother is a widow named Brook Ripple (voiced by Catherine O’Hara), who is more tolerant of Ember than Ember’s family is to Wade. Cinder is particularly upset that Wade and Ember might be falling in love. “Fire and water cannot mix!” Cinder tells Ember.
Because “Elemental” is so focused on the Ember/Wade relationship, some of the supporting characters aren’t given enough character development. An earth being named Clod (voiced by Mason Wertheimer), who’s supposed to be the equivalent of a boy in his early teens, has a crush on Ember and lets her know it. Clod shows Ember that he’s reached puberty by lifting his arm to show that a flower is growing in his armpit. It’s explained in the movie that earth characters can be a little “seedy.”
Wade’s boss is the blustery air character Gale (voiced by Wendi McLendon-Covey), who looks and acts like a lot of hot air. Gale is an avid fan of the Windbreakers, an Air Ball team, so there’s a time-filling sequence about the Windbreakers playing a game at Cyclone Stadium in Element City. Gale’s mood can easily turn like the wind. “Elemental” makes these cutesy pun references throughout the movie, which might be annoying to some viewers.
Clod and Gale are lively characters but are very under-used in the story. They come and go in scenes that make Clod and Gale look very expendable. Truth be told, if Clod and Gale weren’t in the movie, it wouldn’t have made a difference to the relationship that develops between Ember and Wade. However, for a movie that gives the impression that it’s about life’s four main elements, the sidelining of earth and air in “Elemental” seems like a wasted opportunity.
“Elemental” has a very talented voice cast that brings much-needed personality and spark to what could have been a visually attractive but overly formulaic story. Lewis, Athie and del Carmen are especially good in their performances of making these non-human beings relatable to people watching “Elemental.” Most viewers know people like Ember, Wade or Bernie in real life.
The movie also handles its serious issues fairly well without being preachy. The prejudices passed down through generations about elements that are not supposed to mix with other are obvious metaphors about racism in a multicultural society. The issue of what Ember wants to do with her life—fulfill family obligations that she doesn’t want or follow her own dreams—is a dilemma presented in many coming-of-age films. The “opposites attract” theme is another stereotype in movies that have romance.
Even with all of these not-very-original ideas for a story, “Elemental” offers many unique visuals that are good enough to keep viewers reasonably entertained. There is no subtlety or nuance to this movie. And there are absolutely no real surprises either. “Elemental” is an apt title because the story is very basic and only saves itself by adding some eye-catching visuals and appealing characters.
Disney/Pixar Animation Studios will release “Elemental” in U.S. cinemas on June 16, 2023.