Film Review: Elemental blends its societal commentary with the charm of a romantic comedy

Conjuring a metropolis that separates the elements – fire, water, earth and air – as if they were diverse ethnicities, Elemental, in the guise of a romantic comedy, operates as a metaphor for the opposing views of race and class.  For a Pixar movie it all may seem a little heavy-handed, but Peter Sohn‘s delightful laugher never feels as if it’s preaching its message to its audience, seemingly taking a cue from the similarly minded Zootopia – instead just substituting out the animals for the elements.

Immigrating to the film’s bustling Element City through a customs-like entry, Fire Town inhabitants Bernie (Ronnie del Carmen) and Cinder (Shila Omni) – “English” names they are handed in the process – scrape together a life, like so many real-life immigrants before them, and propel themselves forward with a bodega business, one that sells literal hot food and other fire-adjacent goods.  Their expectation is that their young daughter, Ember (voiced by Clara Lin Ding as a child, Reagan To as a teenager, and eventually Leah Lewis for the remainder of the film), will inherit the shop following their impending retirement, but Ember’s temper – she’s oft in danger of going “full purple” when she overwhelms herself and can’t control the limitations of her fire power – is a pressing issue that’s blocking her moving forward as the shop’s manager.

Of course, given that one splash could consume fire, and a strong flame is enough to evaporate water, Ember’s in a crisis when the shop springs a leak and floods, bringing out in its flow Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie), a water element and building inspector who spots a dozen-or-so violations and makes immediate haste to shut the shop down.  Naturally, Ember can’t let her parents know that she’s potentially crushed their livelihood and thus chases after Wade; a traditional rom-com “meet cute” if ever there was one.

Whilst it makes sense that screenwriters John Hoberg (TV’s My Name is Earl), Kat Likkel (TV’s Better Off Ted) and Brenda Hsueh (TV’s How I Met Your Mother) would enhance the romantic inclinations of the story and lightly touch on the cultural differences between the fire and water elements from an outside perspective – when Ember meets Wade’s family they note how well she speaks English – Elemental does feel like it has missed opportunities in detailing (however subtle) the current reality of our climate; similarly, air and earth are relegated to support players.

That being said, Elemental is a kids film at the end of the day, and though some commentary opportunities go untapped, its central story is quite beautifully realised.  Ember emerges as one of Pixar’s strongest protagonists to date, with her story of being a first-generation daughter of an immigrant earning an emotional outlay that extends beyond the usual target audience.  And her own push-pull story between wanting to stay true to her family’s intentions of running the shop and exploring her own interests – here it’s glass blowing – speaks to that familiar crossroad that so many of us have in fearing the unknown..

As mentioned though, it’s not as heavy-handed as it all may sound, as such is the Pixar way it gets away with touching on such issues and emotions without honing a preaching mentality that may overwhelm its audience.  Its romantic comedy structure serves the film well in blending the fire and water elements as a note on interracial connection – when Ember and Wade realise they can touch without hurting the other, it’s really quite tender – and Wade’s family, in particular, lend the film a humorous ridiculousness pertaining to their seeming inability to not cry at the drop of a hat that furthers the film’s surface level entertainment value.


Elemental is now screening in Australian theatres.

Peter Gray

Seasoned film critic. Gives a great interview. Penchant for horror. Unashamed fan of Michelle Pfeiffer and Jason Momoa.