Despite Pixar’s vaunted status in the world of animation, the studio has been questioned a lot lately. This isn’t an entirely bad thing. Pixar never belonged on a pedestal, though some of us are guilty of placing it on there. I’ve never had any reason to doubt Pixar, and my faith in them has always been justified.
Elemental is the first Pixar movie I watched in theaters since Onward in 2019. It’s been a frustratingly long four years. Some personal turmoil also made it difficult for me to really anticipate this movie. I just wasn’t as excited as I normally would be. Maybe this too wasn’t an entirely bad thing, because I had no idea walking into that theater what awaited me. This movie, par for the course, is unlike anything we’ve seen before. It’s the type of story that couldn’t have come from anywhere else. It is so distinctly Pixar even as it lights a new way.
Pixar films in recent years have taken on a more intimate and personal tone. We’ve watched a myriad of experiences unfold onscreen: the woes of a parent watching their child grow up; a child learning to fill the space left by a parent; a boy leaving his family and another finding one; a girl’s terrifying but hilarious journey into puberty. Director Pete Sohn drew on his own upbringing as a child of Korean immigrants in Elemental. The prejudices portrayed throughout are unfortunately true to our own world. Sohn wrote a very touching letter that brought me to tears. Like his parents, mine sacrificed so much to be here. Sometimes I’ve felt unworthy of that sacrifice.
The tagline of this movie is opposites react. Fire and water can’t touch. There’s so much hostility between these two elements, so much mistrust. It’s the buddy movie formula Pixar has perfected, but this time as a love story.
Ember (Leah Lewis) is the daughter of Bernie (Pixar’s Ronnie del Carmen) and Cinder (Sheila Vosough), shopowners who journeyed on a ship from the old country to a new land. They arrived in Element City when Ember was still, well, an ember in her mother’s womb. She grew up to be feisty, independent, and fiercely devoted to her family and their business, The Fireplace. Ember also has a temper she can’t control. But she tries! Oh does she try. One day Wade (Mamoudou Athie), a city inspector and a water guy bursts through the pipes in the shop and immediately writes up a bunch of citations. The store is in danger of closing which would crush Bernie. Ember is also being primed to take over the business, something she’s very impatient to do.
Despite Wade’s role in The Fireplace being shut down, an unlikely friendship springs up between them which eventually leads to a very sweet romance. But how can their love be accepted? They can’t even touch each other. But somehow they are meant to be.
Elemental is really too special for words. It glows with this earnestness and vitality, a story about family, sacrifice, love, and trust. Ember and Wade are both irresistible. The latter in particular is endearingly precious, a goofball who’s prone to loud displays of crying. Ember continues the tradition of red haired Pixar ladies, her indomitable spirit layered with vulnerability. It’s also refreshing that she isn’t concerned with her own dreams, but just that of her family’s. She’s always putting herself second. (Not a bad thing either).
Pixar has created another astonishing world I want to live in. Element City is rippling with color and texture, so unbelievably vibrant that all you can do is soak it in. I couldn’t even look for any easter eggs! Computer animation continues to evolve in such thrilling ways.
We can thank Elemental and Across the Spiderverse for a banner year of animation, stunning us with visually innovative feats and featuring immigrant stories that reflect our own lives.
Also playing with Elemental is “Carl’s Date,” the short film directed by Bob Peterson. It’s taken a while to get to the big screen, after Disney+ delays. But it’s finally here! The tradition is being revived and I couldn’t be happier. A lot of fans weren’t happy with the premise of this short. I wasn’t one of them. Ellie is my favorite Pixar character, and I loved seeing her in this short, even if it was only in her wedding photograph with Carl. It’s a charming and heartwarming few minutes that remind you of how amazing Dug is. Carl is less the grouch but still totally lovable. You’ll be left wondering how his date actually goes because we never see it! Maybe there will be a part two.
See Elemental and “Carl’s Date” now playing in theaters everywhere.Last modified: September 10, 2023