Review: Elemental


You really have to feel for Pixar at this point. Since the Covid-19 pandemic, the studio has slowly but surely been in a bit of a tailspin. Three (technically four) of its films were shunted onto Disney+ and quickly forgotten about by audiences. Lightyear underperformed commercially, and even the quality of these films ranges all over the place. Sometimes they’re great, like with Soul or Turning Red. Most of the time, they’re forgettable and barely worth remembering.

What happened here? While it’ll probably take years, if not decades, for us to learn what’s happening inside Pixar, the general consensus that I’ve found is that most audiences don’t care about the prestige of Pixar anymore. Back in the 2000s, a Pixar movie meant something, but now the studio is just seen as another arm of Disney, made even more apparent by Disney’s shift into 3D animation in the 2010s. If Disney itself is pivoting to what Pixar is more known for, what role does Pixar even serve as Disney now?

So when I went into Elemental, I had nothing but the best of intentions. I want to love Pixar again on the big screen and I want to see audiences rave about its films. There’s a scene in Elemental where one of the characters is tearfully trying to rile up a crowd to cheer on a struggling athlete because he wants him to succeed. I want to be like the character. I want to successfully sway crowds of people to flock to theaters to see the latest Pixar movie and show it nothing but love. But I can’t do that if Pixar is making movies like Elemental that are so obviously flawed it’s hard to praise them without reservations.

Elemental | Official Trailer

Director: Peter Sohn
Release Date: June 16, 2023 (Theatrical)

In the bustling metropolis of Element City, Ember (Leah Lewis) is a Fire element who is planning on running her immigrant father Bernie’s (Ronnie del Carmen) store when he retires. Due to her explosive temper, she causes a rupture in the pipes in their basement, which summons a Water elemental health inspector named Wade (Mamoudou Athie). He meekly says that the store has to be shut down due to the faulty plumbing, but Ember is able to pitch to Wade’s boss, Gale (Wendi McLendon-Covey), that if they can find out what’s causing faulty plumbing throughout all of Element City, the store can be saved. Of course, as Wade and Ember begin to work together, the two slowly but surely develop a bond and fall in love.

Elemental is all over the place with what it’s trying to do and never fully commits to one specific idea. At first, the plot is about Ember running the family business and taking over after her dad, but then it’ll shift into being about the romance between her and Wade, then sometimes we get a look at the plumbing problems throughout the city, and rarer still do we actually get a meaningful examination of what Element City is all about. The film ping-pongs around so frequently that it never gives any of these plotlines enough time to meaningfully develop.

At first, I thought that the film would tackle some racial commentary much in the same way that Zootopia did. While the metaphor in that film was a lot easier to track, the logic here feels half-thought-out. Many characters will claim that “elements don’t mix” but offer up no reason as to why. They just say that they shouldn’t do so, yet we see water, earth, and air elementals mixing all the time so that analogy doesn’t really make sense. I then started to look at it as a race metaphor, since the Fire elementals are the only ones that are shown to be slightly persecuted in Elemental City, but the worst that goes to is telling Bernie and Ember to leave a museum. At least in Zootopia, the film centered around the bigotry and xenophobia of the populous and made that the cornerstone of the film’s messaging. Here it’s just something that is occasionally brought up.

Review: Elemental

Copyright: Pixar

So with that out of the way, I then started to think of the film as a romance between Wade and Ember. The line that “elements don’t mix” should then apply to Wade and Ember’s budding relationship, sort of like a Romeo & Juliet-esque notion. As far as chemistry between these two go, there really isn’t much. Wade is positive and wears his heart on his sleeve while Ember is more aggressive and in your face. The moments these two share are nice moments, but I never really felt like these two were falling in love. They were friends on a relatively low-stakes adventure that was solved not even midway through the movie.

That’s really the issue at the heart of Elemental: it feels aimless in its execution. The inciting incident, the leaky pipes, appears to be solved early on (or so it seems), so the film has to contrive some reason to keep going. So we see the film grasping at straws to try and keep our attention, but because it spread itself so thin there’s not much to latch on to. For example, despite the city containing four different types of elements, we really only get to know water and fire elementals. Air and earth elementals are seen, but we don’t see how they live and interact with one another, just that they’re background characters in this city that are way more interesting than the movie is.

When Elemental wants to just show off the city and its inhabitants, the act of showing us this world is stunning. There were too many scenes to count that had me marveling at just how creative and beautiful this film is. There are moments we see the fire elementals create stunning glass sculptures, or we look at how air elementals travel via blimps, or we watch how water elementals refract the light that hits their bodies. Elemental is bursting with creativity that sets it apart from its contemporaries, but none of it comes through in the final product.

Review: Elemental

Copyright: Pixar

The best metaphor that Elemental has is the immigration angle, which really only pops up every now and then. The movie begins with Bernie and his wife coming to Element City and being rejected much like how many immigrant groups face persecution upon immigrating to a new country. Again, the film never really says or does anything with it, only just to serve as an explanation for Bernie’s distrust of water elementals, but at least it presents the idea in a novel and fun way that elevates what is otherwise a fairly mediocre movie.

It hurts me to say that about Elemental. If it had a different script, one that focused solely on the immigration angle, the love story, the racial allegories, or the adventure aspects, then we could have had a great movie. As it is, the film is unfocused and can’t commit to one of its many disparate ideas. I want to love it, especially because of how beautiful it is, but the movie just can’t commit to one idea. Now with early box office numbers confirming that Elemental is going to be a flop for Pixar, I really am sad to see what may happen to Pixar in the near future. The studio’s creativity is boundless, but when tied to such disappointing releases, it’s no wonder that people are starting to tire of Pixar.




Elemental has a ton of creativity and some wonderful bits of animation, but a messy plot and a romance that doesn't evoke any emotions limits what could have been a solid movie.

Jesse Lab
The strange one. The one born and raised in New Jersey. The one who raves about anime. The one who will go to bat for DC Comics, animation, and every kind of dog. The one who is more than a tad bit odd. The Features Editor.