Review: In Elemental, Pixar Excels at Their Trademark Captivating Animation and World-Building

The creatives at Pixar have covered a lot of ground in their nearly 30 years creating feature films, but one of the subjects they have rarely touched upon is love. Okay, most of their films feature some element of love, but I’m talking about a feature that details an actual love story. But with the animation studio’s latest work, Elemental, director Peter Sohn (The Good Dinosaur) sets his sights on a creative work about romance and the difficult road two people may be forced to travel to fall in love.

Not silly enough to be labelled a rom-com, Elemental introduces us to a metropolitan hub known as Element City, where fire-, water-, land- and air-residents live together in relative harmony. Right away, as we are shown the way the city functions, the universe building is extraordinary. Although the elemental citizens cross paths, they have found a way not to bump into each other so water doesn’t extinguish fire, fire doesn’t burn the foliage of land, etc. Within this teeming environment, we’re introduced to the fire element Ember Lumen (Leah Lewis), who lives with parents Bernie (Ronnie Del Carmen) and Cinder (Shila Ommi), and helps her father run their family-owned general store, which Ember is expected to take over when her father retires.

When pipes in the basement suddenly burst, into Ember’s life comes Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie), a city water inspector who also happens to be water and is sucked into the store’s basement. There shouldn’t be any water in the pipes any longer, but rather than figure out where the water is coming from, Wade decides to proceed by the books and issues citations to the store for code violations, which he immediately regrets because he actually appreciates Ember’s plight. On the other hand, Ember seems to suffer from an extreme temper that sometimes results in her getting blazing hot and shooting off flames in every direction. One of these outbursts actually caused the pipe to burst in the first place, so she’s not only freaking out about the citations but she feels guilty that it’s mostly her fault.

Even though Ember never leaves the fire part of town, she manages to go into downtown Element City to find Wade, who tries to grab the tickets he wrote back from his boss, the wind element Gale (Wendi McLendon-Covey). As Ember and Wade go through various parts of the city, they begin talking about their backgrounds, dreams, and family expectations, and in the process, they find out how similar their lives actually are. While Ember is somewhat hesitant to even consider Wade as a possible romantic interest, Wade makes it very clear almost from minute one that he’s head over waves for her. 

Naturally, all of the characters’ personalities tend to match their element: Ember is hot headed, Wade goes with the flow, Gale is blustery—it’s not a difficult code to crack. And when we meet Wade’s extended family (including his mother, voiced by Catherine O’Hara) they all seem incredibly laid back and easy going, even as they make awkward attempts to get to know Ember. Elemental is a film that seems built on pure (if obvious) emotion, but in the end, the emotion that rules the day is love. And not in a saccharine display of love, but affection that is built from trial and error as Ember and Wade drop in and out of their relationship, largely because she doesn’t see how two different elements can co-exist. They are literally afraid to hold hands because they don’t know what will happen (turns out, what does happen is pretty special and one of the film’s most resonant messages). And even if they can get past that fear, what will the world say about them?

There’s a subplot involving a water reservoir that threatens to break and flood all of Ember’s section of town that seems pointless, and I wish the film had concentrated more on the interpersonal relationships rather than beefing up the plot this way. Still, the detail and imagination behind the animation here is stunning; the thought that went into the creation of Element City is mind blowing; and I especially appreciate that Pixar didn’t front-load its voice actors with big-name stars and instead went for the best voices for the job. Elemental isn’t quite top-tier Pixar (although the Thomas Newman score is), but it is something that feels different, new, and more rooted in feelings, which many Pixar films are—but not quite like this.

The film is now playing in theaters.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.