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Elemental – Film Review

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elemental film review

As with so much of Hollywood’s output this year, there’s been a cloud of negativity surrounding Elemental. It’s the latest in a long line of Pixar releases that have underwhelmed in one way or another, whether financially like Turning Red or creatively with Buzz Lightyear. It has to fight the entrenched habits of parents who are waiting for films to release on Disney+. And, perhaps it’s just us, but in trailers it felt like it had been created by some kind of Disney algorithm: something that doesn’t normally have a personality gets given one, again. We’ve had toys, cars, souls, emotions and cities full of animals, and now we’re getting the elements.

We will admit that we turned up to Elemental burning with cynicism. We weren’t expecting anything other than a by-the-numbers family adventure, and we were readying the comments about the death of Pixar. But we’re not ashamed to say we were wrong. This is far from the golden age of Pixar – no one will be mentioning this in the same breath of Wall-E, Toy Story or Finding Nemo – but it’s a warm bear-hug of a movie that’s made with genuine care.

Events start a generation back, with Bernie and Cinder arriving in Element City as refugees from the fire nation. Earth, wind and water people have been citizens of the city since it first began, but fire is more unusual. The city just isn’t built for people who could be extinguished with a poorly timed shower, as its transport and sanitation is built on pipes and waterways. That’s before we even get into xenophobia and alienation.

But Bernie and Cinder fight to find a place for themselves. They buy a rundown plot and turn it into a shop named The Fireplace, with a Blue Light (an eternal energy source) powering everything. Finally, they have a child, Ember, and the flashback fades to black.

Skip forward a decade or two and a community has built up around The Fireplace. Fire people are enjoying its coal-based delicacies. And while the city hasn’t properly accommodated them (the waterways still splosh down in the streets), the fire people are at least recognised and increasingly common.

Ember has grown up too, and she’s angling to take over The Fireplace. That’s not out of any great ambition – she just wants to take it over Bernie’s hands, as he’s getting increasingly, well, old. The blocker is that she’s got a temper. Whenever a customer does something stupid – which, as anyone who has worked in retail will tell you, is a lot and often – she explodes in a tiny mushroom cloud, which is hard for her to disguise. 

Just as it looks like she’s getting a hang of her temper, she has a tantrum in the basement and explodes around The Fireplace’s underfloor piping. It leads to a flood that almost kills her, but more importantly it causes Wade, a health inspector and water person, to burst out with that flood. He condemns the building and Ember fails to win his sympathy before the motion is filed. 

But she does win his sympathy eventually, and so begins a kind of slapstick race to stop the paperwork before it gets stamped and approved. While this is happening, Wade falls in love with Ember, spends more time with her, and realises just how much the system is set up against her and the fire people. Elemental becomes a film about the many obstacles in front of immigrants and minorities, just as much as it is a romance. 

The themes of racism were pretty evident from the trailer, but we didn’t expect a Pixar movie revolving around city infrastructure and bureaucracy. We can only imagine the meetings in Pixar HQ, as Disney signed off on these fairly un-dramatic touch points. That must have been a hell of a discussion. It’s a big shout for a kids movie, and it almost gets away with it. 

So, there’s no villain – not really, unless you count systemic racism. Encanto managed it, so you can see why the peeps behind Elemental gave it a shot. But the film does have a habit of meandering, relying on deus ex moments to keep the plot running (shall we trigger a flood now? Yeah, let’s trigger a flood). So, while we give big props to the Elemental writers for choosing some adult themes that don’t rely on the common troops of villainry, it also meant that our kids were bored on occasion. 

The romance runs hot and cold, too. Wade is a hard character to love, and we fully expect people to shut off from him. His ‘thing’ is that he cries at any given moment, making him a walking reality TV show. Combine that with the oddly blinkered opening where he won’t listen to Ember, and you have someone that takes a while to warm to (somewhat appropriately). Ember has no such problems: she’s determined, clearly talented (her control of fire makes her special in the world of Elemental) and only has that temper to deal with. It’s also worth noting that it’s surprising to see a by-the-numbers romance in a Disney movie, when films like Brave and Encanto, plus Frozen’s Elsa, have eschewed them.

But their relationship does generate some of the finest moments, so we’re tentative thumbs-up. A slightly misguided romantic moment in a museum is fantastic, while Wade’s family are lovely, so a ‘meet the parents’ moment brings even more emotional heat to proceedings. 

By the end, our family was just about on board. There’s just enough action and tension in Elemental to jazz up the conversations about city infrastructure. Plus it looks vibrant, adding yet another film to the growing list of stylistic animated movies that can only be referred to as a golden age. 

The Death of Pixar? You’d be foolish to call it right now. With Elemental they may not quite be on fire, but they still have the power to warm the heart like few others.

SUMMARY

Pros:
  • Fantastically realised Elemental City
  • Tackles systemic racism well
  • Real emotional wallop
Cons:
  • Infrastructure and bureaucracy aren’t all that exciting
  • Wade is hard to love
  • Has periods where our kids lost interest
Info:
  • Purchased by TXH
  • Running time and release date - 1hr 31mins | 2023
  • To rent/buy - No rent / £9.99 SD, £13.99 HD, UHD
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<b>Pros:</b> <ul> <li>Fantastically realised Elemental City</li> <li>Tackles systemic racism well</li> <li>Real emotional wallop</li> </ul> <b>Cons:</b> <ul> <li>Infrastructure and bureaucracy aren’t all that exciting</li> <li>Wade is hard to love</li> <li>Has periods where our kids lost interest</li> </ul> <b>Info:</b> <ul> <li>Purchased by TXH</li> <li>Running time and release date - 1hr 31mins | 2023 <li>To rent/buy - No rent / £9.99 SD, £13.99 HD, UHD</li> </ul>Elemental - Film Review
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