Animation Reviews

“Elemental” is an elementary tale

Pixar’s recent fare has ranged from downright disappointing (Lightyear) to pretty good (Turning Red). But most of it has been relatively bland and forgettable. So needless to say, I had pretty low expectations for Elemental, especially since its director Peter Sohn is responsible for the all-time worst Pixar film – The Good Dinosaur. But I was pleasantly surprised by this narrative of being the children of immigrants and generational trauma.

I hope this is the last Disney film to do “generational trauma” as the villain for a while – because honestly, I think it does it best. It’s a cute, though predictable rom-com – but nowhere near as bland as the trailers made it out to be.


Element City is a place where all elements can live together in harmony, though Fire elementals, being the most recent wave of immigrants. They live in their own part of the city. Ember is the daughter of two of the first Firish immigrants; her parents run a successful shop with Ember slated to take over.

But she’s unsure about running the shop. When her temper causes a water pipe to break she meets Wade – a water elemental who works as a safety inspector. Ember leaves Fire Town to stop him for citing the shop. But then the two recognize that there’s a larger issue at hand – Fire Town isn’t supposed to have water at all.

As the two investigate the issue – they find themselves falling for each other, and Ember finds herself wondering if she should follow her parents’ expectations or forge her own path.

The Good

I liked how the film decided to tell the story of an immigrant family and how they deal with assimilating. Rather than being a much-maligned metaphor for racism (like Zootopia) where there are legitimate reasons (to an extent) for other elements to fear the Fire people; the film shows that the city just isn’t that accessible for them.

And because the Firish are still a relatively new people to Element City – they do face some discrimination. At the beginning of the film, it’s shown that Ember’s parents don’t speak the local language. The immigration officer unable to communicate with them, gives them new names. Throughout the film, both Ember’s parents speak in somewhat broken English. And while Firish people are sometimes outright banned from places (a small plot point) most of the discrimination comes in the forms of microaggressions from otherwise well-meaning people…who are still obviously in the wrong.

But the main conflict of the story comes from the city not being set up to accommodate this new culture. The Fire elementals didn’t build their area of the city from scratch. The city had to shut off water – but there are still pipes…Either because the Fire people are so unused to dealing with water pipes that they didn’t think of it further and were just happy the city accommodated them or the maintenance department never did their due diligence in the first place. Probably some combination of the two. This aspect isn’t that important but it’s bothered at least one reviewer that I’ve read.

It’s clear that the Fire elementals share elements with several Asian cultures – which makes sense considering director Sohn’s background as the son of Korean immigrants. But there isn’t a one-to-one analogy to race relations in our world. This clearly works in the movie’s favor.

It can be representative of any immigration experience. 

The animation, of course, is beautiful. I loved how they made Ember’s flames constantly move – same with Wade’s body. But that’s all there really is to this story. Pretty animation and a decent immigration story – but the romance aspect feels watered down. (No pun intended) and the interpersonal conflicts halfbaked…

The Bad

Most of the movie isn’t bad, just mediocre. Ember is an interesting character but her desire to do art rather than run the shop feels like it comes out of nowhere…never once did I think she was unsuitable for running the shop – aside from dealing with the customers, it seems she enjoys it. And there’s no real reason she couldn’t pursue art on the side – aside from Wade’s family basically getting her an “in” to the most prestigious art school in their world.

And while Wade is also a decent character – the whole “water people cry a lot because they’re made of water” schtick got old pretty fast. It was kind of funny the first time, but after that, it lost its luster.

The other elements, namely earth, and air, don’t get really any screentime or focus in the movie. They’re almost entirely unnecessary. Also considering how it’s shown Earth elementals are plant-based (as opposed to rock) they need water. It would make sense for Earth and Water elementals to be close but we never see that.

Nor do we see water and air elementals mix… despite air elementals being clouds…which are made of water. The world isn’t based in science or reality – so I’m probably thinking about it too much.

The romance, like a lot of Disney romances, seems to take place over the course of only a few days, maybe weeks. But at the end of the day, it’s really just another opposites-attract, star-crossed heterosexual love story. It’s cute.

But I feel like they could have done more. 

The Scoop

If you combined the immigrant allegory in Elemental and how the film handles race and combined it with the world-building and Judy and Nick’s character dynamic in Zootopia…you’d have a great movie.

Each movie succeeds more whereas the other failed. I definitely think Elemental more concisely and accurately depicts discrimination – though there are still issues. And it’s clearly a story based on personal experience – that part was very clear while watching it. But the plot was almost non-existent and the characters were one-dimensional.

I don’t know. It’s really feeling like Pixar is losing its touch. And with so many sequels coming out from the studio, I can’t really say any of their future projects are really exciting to me.

But maybe Elio will be good?


And that’s the scoop.

Grade: B –

Length: 109 minutes

Release Year: 2023

Producer: Denise Ream

Director: Peter Sohn

Screenplay: John Hoberg, Kat Likkel, Brenda Hsueh

Story: Peter Sohn, John Hoberg, Kat Likkel, Brenda Hsueh

Voice Actors: Leah Lewis , Mamoudou Athie, Ronnie del Carmen, Shila Ommi, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Catherine O’Hara

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