It's interesting to hear/read critics of my generation (I'm 36) and older who have had more and more trouble relating to Pixar films over the course of the last few years as it doesn't seem to so much be that the movies are changing in quality or intent as much as it is the formula isn't as novel or innovative as it once felt. Not as it once was, but how it once felt; specifivcally to these generations of viewers. Being present at the beginning of something as groundbreaking as a wholly computer generated feature can only mean that no matter how majestic or convincing the animation becomes the characters and story are what ultimately remain the hook. For my money, the latest run of originals including Onward, Soul, Luca, and Turning Red show as much imagination and innate observational humor as anything from Pixar's early days (and this is coming from someone who thinks Soul is the weakest of that bunch specifically because it does try too hard) and Elemental is no different in terms of offering all the trademarks and cornerstones of a Pixar film as the studio still manages to create broadly appealing adventures for younger audiences while finding an emotional chord to strike with adults, at least as far as this adult is concerned. 

The point being, I'm not exactly sure what to say to convince adults, especially newer ones, that Pixar's films are as strong and affecting as ever (sans maybe Lightyear, I wasn't a fan of Lightyear) and that just because the shine may have worn off a bit or the engineering might be a little more apparent doesn't make them work any less. I saw this film with five children ranging in ages from eight to one including my three year-old nephew who has down syndrome and this was his first trip to the theater. My eight year-old daughter exclaimed how much she loved it as soon as the credits began rolling, my (almost) four year-old son and five year-old nephew couldn't stop laughing and talking about how funny the movie was (probably a little too much throughout the movie, honestly), and my nephew with down syndrome not only stayed seated for the majority of the film but sat in awe of the colors and everything unfolding on the giant screen. Granted, the one year-old did not stay seated the entirety of the runtime, but without all the trailers and traditional Pixar short I think it would have been a different story. Again, the point being, it was just as fulfilling to see their smiling faces watch and react to the film as it was for me to experience this new world and new romance the film created and maybe that's the reason for this adjustment period some newer adults/parents are experiencing. While Pixar has now been around for some time kids who were definitively kids in 1995 are now definitively adults and parents if they've so chosen to be and as viewers who have seen both ends of the spectrum it's more difficult to accept something that felt so exclusively ours as children no longer be made explicitly for us, but that doesn't mean the magic is evaporating...it just means we may not have shifted gears yet. 

Ember (Leah Lewis) and Wade (Mamoudou Athie) exist in  in a city where fire, water, and other elements must live together.
Photo by Pixar/PIXAR - © 2023 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

As for the movie itself, the metaphor works so far as to exemplify how we can all work together despite our differences emphasizing how it’s always important to make others feel welcome and show kindness rather than judgement. I'm honestly not sure if even my eight year-old caught the overt feeling immigration and discrimination analogies though I assume this will only make watching it when she's older even more rewarding. While the world itself begs almost as many questions as the Cars universe (how does Wade’s paper notepad not get soaked when he’s writing is the least of the film’s worries), Elemental gets more of a pass from me in this regard due to the authenticity it relays. The main plot deals in a somewhat segregated "Elemental City" where the hierarchy is water, trees, clouds, and then several rungs down sits fire. Said hierarchy has dictated the construction and convienence of the city for each of these elements. As is the case, fire has been somewhat relegated to the outskirts where water has been shut off for years so as to not interfere with or harm fire in their daily lives. A leak occurs after our protagonist Ember (voice of Leah Lewis) loses her temper (something she's working on) and it naturally has to be fixed by a deadline otherwise Ember and her family will lose their shop thanks to literal waterboy Wade (voice of Mamoudou Athie), who also happens to be a city inspector, appears in "Fire Town" as a result of the leak. At the behest of Wade's boss he and Ember begin to investigate the leak leading to them spending more time together leading to the romance at the heart of the story. It does seem like at a certain point there might have been a plot element (pun intended) involving some kind of conspiracy happening in order to evict the fire people from their communities - which would have added a whole other layer of commentary to the metaphor - but director Peter Sohn (The Good Dinosaur) keeps things simple with a focus more on the character's arcs and circumstances than the main plot device used to propel fire and water together. Because the inciting incident does feel more arbitrary and/or a more typical "movie device" than it does inherent to the story things do feel somewhat anticlimactic in that regard, but the pacing is efficient enough and the investment in Wade and Ember so strong that any questions or qualms don't linger for long. 

In classic Pixar tradition, the animation and design only continue to push boundaries in terms of photo realism and innovation. The juxtaposition of the more storybook designs of the characters against the photorealistic backdrops make for some genuinely striking imagery. Maybe it's just refreshing to see computer generated images where artists have been given the time to pour so much love and detail into their work that it is actually breathtaking, but some of the renderings and compositions here are downright gorgeous. Speaking of beautiful renderings the relationship between Ember and Wade is absolutely the heart of this story and just as integral to that working is Ember's journey of feeling indebted to her parents to simply feeling thankful for them. That growing out of a "repayment" mindset to more of a “fulfillment” one even if it might not be fulfillment in the way her parents always envisioned is one portrayed through both Ember and her parents coming to terms with these truths. Wade is both a representation of a different perspective as well as the perfect counter-balance and compliment to Ember's (literal) hot-headedness as I really liked both lead voice performances, but Athie's full-on embodiment of this extremely compassionate, overly-sensitive, but wholly supportive figure is completely winning and the highlight of the film. The creativity on display in the construction of the city and the sheer amount of dad-approved puns only add to the enjoyment of the film on a surface-level, but this tale of forbidden love where the chemisty and depths of everything the film is working to comment on and express will only become more appreciated both upon repeat viewings and as audiences who saw this young grow older. Also, they somehow credibly age fire which is just...damn impressive.

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