"Don't hate us."
For years Pixar curated a steady, reliable string of box office hits. They were, frankly, dependable. But 2015's The Good Dinosaur exposed a slight imperfection in the studio's armor, and with that, they began to show signs of mortality. Onward became the studio's first wide release not to cross the $100 million domestic threshold, while last year's Lightyear is considered by many to be Pixar's biggest blunder to date. Amid the current industry-wide financial restructuring, to say there's a bit of pressure on Peter Sohn's Elemental would be a significant understatement.
The film, set within the hustle and bustle of Element Town, is a direct, unmistakable look at the first-generation immigrant experience. A prologue at the film's onset introduces us to the Lumen family, freshly arrived refugees who long for a better life for their forthcoming baby girl, Ember.
We quickly catch up with the now-adult Ember (voiced by Leah Lewis), an only child who has become a firm fixture within her Firetown community. Her parents own The Fireplace, a popular local shop that will, one day, be hers. But Ember struggles with her temper, which can cause her red flames to turn a dull purple before combusting in all directions.
One morning a fire-laden episode dislodges a pipeline, sending streams of water and a whaling Wade Ripple (Mamoudzou Athie) into the shop's basement. Wade is a water person who happens to be a building inspector. His presence kickstarts a somewhat expected narrative that sees the duo jump from begrudged foils to unlikely friends to frustrated potential soul mates. As Wade heads back to his office to process the numerous violations found in the shop, Ember follows in quick pursuit, hellbent on keeping her father's legacy intact.
While director Peter Sohn does well to craft a city of striking visuals, the work done within the context of the different elements is genuinely remarkable. Playing each to their full potential, the complexity and creativity within the fictitious world is impressive. Visual gags and puns have always been a strength of Pixar, and the filmmakers don't disappoint here. But the balance they achieve should not go unmentioned. Elemental always takes itself seriously and, quite often, literally. Abiding by science, the creators find great visual satire in showing how wind, earth, fire, and water can interact within a single metropolis.
But Ember and many of her suburban co-residents keep their distance, only viewing the big city from afar. Though Ember's parents repeatedly tell us that elements don't mix, Ember appears to avoid the downtown area for more physical reasons: many of the spaces are not made for people like her. Though the film broaches interesting questions surrounding accessibility, it never fully commits to the discussion. Instead, Sohn chooses to keep things light and airy, focusing on the visuals, not the conversations the story could spark.
That is what is so disheartening—though there are moments of pure genius, Elemental struggles to shake its simple, unambiguous story. The filmmakers created a lively, entertaining playpen brimming with fun-filled characters. But a series of generic plot points and a painfully predictable third act is hard to overcome. Pixar has a reputation. While this film will be enjoyed by many, it isn't quite the overall quality we've come to expect from the once-unblemished studio.