ELEMENTAL review by Mark Walters – Disney/Pixar deliver a beautiful commentary on cultural differences

ELEMENTAL review by Mark Walters – Disney/Pixar deliver a beautiful commentary on cultural differences

When I originally saw the trailers for ELEMENTAL, the newest animated offering from Disney and Pixar, I wasn’t sure if it was going to be a film I’d enjoy. It definitely looked more high concept like INSIDE OUT, and less like a silly romp such as TOY STORY or CARS. I’m happy to say I was pleasantly surprised with the end result, which is a very topical and earnest allegory for immigrants, immigration, and the idea of finding romance between clashing cultures. It’s one of the smartest films Pixar has produced to date, and perhaps one of the most important.

This movie opens with a short based on UP called CARL’S DATE, in which Carl (Ed Asner in his final voice performance) and Doug the dog attempt to prepare him for his first date since his wife passed. It’s a cute and heartwarming short that will remind you how much you love these characters, and will likely make you want to revisit UP, even featuring another emotional moment similar to the one that film is quite famous for. It also serves as a sort of classic reminder of where we’ve been with Pixar movies, as where we’re heading next is surprising and perhaps new territory for many.

In ELEMEMENTAL, we’re introduced to a world where different elements are represented by walking and talking characters while retaining their unique and specific quality – water people are made of water, and if they touch things those items get wet, and fire people are made of fire, tree people are made of bark and leaves, and so on. I particularly enjoyed the idea of “air people” traveling in zeppelins that they literally power just by getting in them. Ember (Leah Lewis) is a fire element, and her parents Bernie (Ronnie Del Carmen) and Cinder (Shila Ommi) have moved to Element City and opened a store in an outlying neighborhood, and we see that over time their arrival has encouraged other fire people to move into that same area… not unlike immigrants opening a business and making a certain neighborhood feel welcoming for others like them. And like immigrants in real life, sometimes the other cultures… or rather elements, clash with their ways. When water people come into the shop, Bernie bristles and curses their existence, they don’t mix well with the fire folks. He’s trying to train Ember to take over the shop, but her hair-trigger temper prevents her from being fully ready for the responsibility. As Bernie begins to wind down in his old age, Ember realizes she must find a way to honor her father’s wishes, but her plans are thwarted when a water person named Wade (Mamoudou Athie) accidentally finds himself in the store, and since he’s a building inspector, he must reluctantly write several citations for Ember, enough to where she could potentially get the store shut down. As she tries to fix these problems, she and Wade form an unlikely friendship, and realize there may be something more brewing… but can fire and water ever effectively mix? And how can Ember explain her new connection to a father who hates Wade’s kind?

While we’ve seen these sorts of ‘opposites attract’ love stories before, ELEMENTAL finds a way to make it interesting and unique thanks to its unusual setting and magnificent visuals. This is a stunning film that plays off the good old strengths of Pixar, while also borrowing some ideas from Japanese Anime and some of the influential foreign animated films of recent years in terms of style. The voice cast is very diverse and inspired, mostly comprised of unknown or fairly unrecognizable names, save for Catherine O’Hara as Wade’s mother, and Wendi McLendon-Covey as Wade’s cloud-bodied supervisor. Leah Lewis and Mamoudou Athie are excellent in the leads and give their respective character charming and electric chemistry. I genuinely wanted these two to find happiness and be content, and I imagine they’ll become instant fan favorites. This is directed by Peter Sohn, who previously helmed the unfortunate Pixar flop THE GOOD DINOSAUR, a movie I actually quite enjoyed for what it was. Sohn really finds a good balance and solid pacing for the story, which again feels familiar without coming across as predictable. There are also some very effectively emotional scenes in here, including an extremely touching ending that will melt the hardest of hearts.

ELEMENTAL is a good family film that feels more mature than most Disney/Pixar fare, but it’s also a smart commentary on modern society, the sometimes problematic issues of culture clash, and the struggles of immigrating to a new place and trying to fit in and find your voice. If this was a live action film set in New York and dealing with immigrants trying to fit in with American customs and policies, you could basically use the same script and have it be just as topical and relevant. I think this movie could be a great teaching tool for kids to help them understand the struggles of coming from different cultural backgrounds and trying to coexist with others who may not live their lives even remotely similar to you, and also a good lesson for not letting other cultures scare you or prevent you from getting to know new people. It’s a marvelous film in a time where we need more stories like this. I genuinely hope people give this a chance as I think they’ll be glad they did.

ELEMENTAL opens June 16, 2023.

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About the Author

Born and raised in Dallas, Mark has been a movie critic since 1994, with reviews featured in print, radio and National TV. In 2001 he started the Entertainment section of the Herorealm website, where he contributed film reviews and celebrity interviews until 2004. After three years of service there, he started Bigfanboy.com, which has become one of the Dallas film community's leading information websites. Bigfanboy hosts several movie screenings in the Texas area, and works closely with film and TV studios and promotional partners to host exciting events and contests. The site also features a variety of rare celebrity and filmmaker interviews, and Bigfanboy.com regularly covers the film festival circuit as well. In addition to Hollywood reporting, Mark has worked for many years as an advertising and sci-fi/comic book artist. Clients have included Lucasfilm Ltd., Topps Trading Cards, The Dallas Mavericks and The Dallas Stars. From 2002 until 2015 he managed the Dallas Comic Con, Sci-Fi Expo and Fan Days events in the DFW area. He currently catalogs rare comic books and movie memorabilia for Heritage Auctions, and runs the Dallas Comic Show conventions, but remains an avid moviegoer and cinema buff.