Read on for my Elemental review:
It feels like there are two types of Pixar movies now – the known and the unknown. We get sequels or prequels or whatever else with familiar and popular characters, like Toy Story. But then we get these much more outside-the-box films that focus on higher-level concepts, like Soul, Inside Out, and Coco.
Elemental is obviously in the latter category. But which type of film are people preferring these days? Or is there a place for both kinds?
I can tell you what I think, at least! I really enjoyed Elemental, and while it wasn’t one of my absolute favorites, I keep thinking about it and wanting to watch it again… so I think that’s a good sign.
Please note: minor spoilers will follow within this Elemental review.
A visually beautiful film
It shouldn’t be surprising if you’ve seen any of the trailers that Elemental is visually beautiful. It’s colorful, but it’s also extremely well-detailed and creative. Element City has so many great little touches and things going on in the background that you could probably watch this movie a dozen times and catch something new on each re-watch.
And the world feels consistent. There aren’t things happening where you’d say “Wait, it doesn’t make sense for fire to do X,” or “If water did Y then wouldn’t this happen?” It’s subtle, but they pay attention to it.
The background stuff is all lovely, but I also really loved the costumes and outfits of the different characters. They were beautiful, but also a reflection of what makes sense for the elements. For example, Ember and her family seemed to wear outfits that looked very metallic, which makes a lot of sense for fire.
It also feels very fast-paced. Not the plot necessarily, but the visuals themselves. Everything is always moving, even if the characters are mostly just talking. Literally, the elements have constant movement. Ember is always flickering or burning in some way, and Wade’s shape will transform or bubbles will be running through him.
Sometimes this can make it feel a little bit chaotic, but I think that’s also a sign of our current times and society. We live in a world now where most people need constant engagement and things happening to keep them involved. For better or for worse, that’s what technology has done. This may have been done to try and keep audiences engaged, but it can also be seen as a slight nod to that facet of our society (truly intentional or not).
The message of Elemental
There is a message the movie is focused on, and it’s a fairly simple one. Learn to respect and appreciate others who are different from you. Even when we come from totally different places or backgrounds, we should still try to see things from other perspectives and treat each other fairly.
But even if the message itself is simple, that doesn’t mean that the problems faced in this situation have simple solutions. Even if we think we are enlightened and understanding about this topic (well, just don’t be racist), there are still microaggressions that we don’t always realize are happening. And we may struggle to have empathy or truly understand because other lived experiences are so different from ours.
Is this theme too heavy-handed?
At first, I thought some of the situations in the story felt too heavy-handed and obvious. There’s a sign-up that says “no fire” near a local attraction, and angry citizens of Elemental City look at Ember and say things like “Go back to where you came from.” You have a scene at an “Ellis Island” location where they can’t pronounce the names of the Fire people, so they give them the new names of “Bernie and Cinder.” Ember’s father later declares he won’t be “watered down.”
And yes, that might be lacking subtlety. But unfortunately, this is what happens to people in the real world every single day, so clearly we still need that message. And we shouldn’t forget that it is an animated film intended for all ages, so some of the more obvious parallels to the way that fire and water treat each other are a good way to share that message with kids… or even with adults who still don’t get it.
A secondary theme
But there is another topic here too, which ties into the main theme nicely. In a lot of ways, this is a “coming of age” story for a character I’d guess is in the 18-20 age range.
Ember doesn’t know what she wants in life, and as a child, she gladly parroted back what her parents wanted for her. As she gets older though, she starts to feel like a failure because she just can’t live up to the expectations her parents have of her.
But maybe she’s not succeeding at the store because it’s not really what she’s meant to be doing, or what she’s best at. Even if she doesn’t know what that thing is, just figuring out that running the store isn’t right for her is a huge wake-up call – and leads to even more difficult emotions and another important theme.
Because now Ember has to deal with letting her family down. They have given her so much. How can she not help them shoulder the burden? What is the middle ground between sacrificing for those you love and sacrificing so much that you’ve given up most of yourself?
Some people may not see these important questions or themes because they are so focused on the more obvious ones, but they are there.
The romance of water + fire
The romance is actually quite good. It develops over time, as they get to know each other and experience things together. They see things in each other that they don’t have in themselves, and that they admire. I’d suggest it’s one of the best movie romances I’ve seen in a long time.
I liked the focus on their relationship – not the obvious clash of fire and water and them “not supposed to be together” (aka Romeo and Juliet) but some of the more intricate components of that relationship. The differences in their personalities and life experiences were much more interesting.
Yes, there is the fact that water and fire don’t play nicely together. But that’s just a surface-level difference. Because we also see how different they are culturally. Ember has had a hard life of working all the time, living in a poor area, and avoiding many things in life because of how she is treated. She has only her mother and father for family, as her grandparents and everyone else remained home when they journeyed to Element City. Wade, on the other hand, seems to have had a pretty comfortable life with a big family in a really nice apartment in the city.
Their personalities are different in a very natural way, too. She can get very hot-headed and lets her temper take over sometimes. He cries all the time, while Ember has never shed a tear in her life.
And the amazing thing is, they may be two very different elements from different worlds, but they are willing to learn from each other.
They discover things in the other which make them not only grow closer together but also grow individually as people. Yes, their relationship is hard, but they also bring out the best in each other – often a best that they didn’t even know they had in them.
Ember admires how Wade can stay calm, and actually rally people together. She asks him, “How do you do that? Draw everyone in like that.” And she truly wants to know.
Ember teaches Wade about enjoying life and living with passion. She shows him how to succeed despite the odds. Wade teaches her how to manage her emotions and temper, and what we can learn from our feelings. It’s really pretty beautiful.
There is some humor in Elemental, and I would say a lot of it more adult-oriented. There are definitely jokes that had the kids in our theater laughing, but I wonder if some of the others went over their heads a bit.
I enjoyed the puns or creative touches with the elements – it’s the sort of thing that there is just so much going on I’m sure I caught only a small amount of them. I have a feeling on re-watching the movie there will be so many more great little details.
The plot of Elemental
I think if there was a criticism I would focus on for this movie, it was that the plot was a bit tenuous – but it’s not really the focus. Sure, there’s a story going on with Ember potentially causing her dad to lose his hard-earned business, and her teaming up with Wade to try save the business and Fire Town, but it’s not a particularly memorable or even interesting plot. Instead, it’s everything else happening around this plot that gives this movie its heart.
Unique struggles with today’s films
Ultimately, I really think Pixar (and all film studios) are fighting a new battle when it comes to making movies. It’s not that people are reluctant to go to the movies anymore due to COVID-19 – it’s that the pandemic showed them there are other options.
For many, waiting for a movie to come to streaming is the best choice today. There is so much content out there – it’s not just the movie theater, it’s the movies that do go directly to streaming or the old stuff we can go back and watch that we might have missed the first time. Not to mention some really skilled content creators online, who are making videos that take up a lot of viewing time for many people too.
And the cost is a barrier. Movie theater tickets are expensive. I paid $35 for two adults for a 4:30 pm movie. If you’ve got a family of 4, and you’re getting snacks or popcorn, you’re looking at 2-3 hours of entertainment that’s going to cost you over $100. Contrast that to paying ~$8 a month for Disney+ and a few bags of microwave popcorn, and, understandably, people are going to be very picky about which movies they are going to see in the theaters.
Not to mention the comfort of watching at home. Sure, theaters can offer big screens and great sound. But there are some pretty great home entertainment set-ups these days. And if I watch a movie at home, you know what I don’t have to deal with? Sitting through literally half an hour of previews. People who take out their phones in the middle and text or check Facebook, with the light on their screens causing a big distraction. And others talking, or just being otherwise disrespectful. Oh, and at home I can always pause the movie when I need to pee.
“Going to the movies” isn’t what it used to be, and people have realized that. As a result, they are going less often overall and are probably going to be a lot pickier about which movies they see. And if you’ve got kids who love Woody and Buzz, Toy Story 5 (or 6,7,8, etc… just saying) is probably going to be a safe bet. Something like Elemental? It’s a known entity.
So are there some issues with Elemental that I would have done differently? Sure, but I think some of it is trying to capture today’s audiences. Ultimately I am thankful that there are people at Pixar who are still willing to make movies like this (and higher-ups who let them).
While it didn’t hit me quite as hard in the feels as Soul or Inside Out, this was a really solid movie that I’m looking forward to seeing again. Heck, I’d even pay movie theater prices to see it in the next week or two. And these days, that’s saying a lot.
Have you seen Elemental? Do you agree with my Elemental review?