It kind of makes complete sense that Pixar would attempt to bring back the romantic comedy.
It’s a genre from which we’ve really not seen anything great emerge in several years. Sure, indie romantic comedies like Andy Samberg’s Palm Springs or inclusive entries like Bros have popped up occasionally here and there, but they’ve mostly been relegated to streaming exposure — low risk, low return exercises. Even last year’s Ticket To Paradise saw Julia Roberts struggle to bring audiences to a film that, 20 years ago, would have been an easy $100 million entry in the US alone.
So, after nearly approaching the genre in Wall-E, Pixar sets its sights on bringing an animated presence to the genre with its opposites attract entry Elemental. Of course Pixar being Pixar, Elemental isn’t *just* a romantic comedy. It also provides an emotionally resonate subplot about generational expectations passed down to children of immigrants. Ultimately, it’s rather fascinating that the film — again, a romantic comedy peppered with themes about generational trauma — is ostensibly a kid’s movie last. I don’t fault the film or Pixar for continuing to elevate animation into a deeply adult experience with a handful of jokes tossed in for the kiddies. They’ve had great success historically with similar thematically heavy material (Up, Wall-E, Ratatouille, and on and on), but previous entries offered more of a balance between comedy that appeases the kids and thematic content aimed for adults. Elemental needed more of that balance.
Set in Element City, Elemental focuses on Ember Lumen (compellingly voiced by Leah Lewis), a fire element whose immigrant parents run a fire-based bodega in the fire ghetto of Element City. She ostensibly longs to take over the shop from her father, but deep-seated frustrations literally erupt at the worst moments. One of these moments causes structural damage to the store, allowing water-based element Wade Ripple (brilliantly, engagingly voiced by Mamoudou Athie) to swim his way into her home and, ultimately, into her heart.
First and foremost, Elemental is a stunning work of art. Pixar artists rendered Element City and its inhabitants in lovingly realized bursts of color. There are conceptual set pieces that dazzle with their ingenuity and visual splendor. The characters, all actual elements with human traits and not humans with elemental powers, move and exhibit their characteristics in unique and expressive ways. Wade, in particular, is fascinating to behold, both reflecting surfaces and magnifying them. Just like water itself, he’s never still, constantly changing in the environment around him. On a sheer technical level, Elemental emerges as one of the greatest accomplishments Pixar has ever attempted.
And the story, while not as innovative as the animation, does work well. It’s clear director Peter Sohn (a long-time Pixar artist who was the visual inspiration for Russell from Up and was handed the unenviable prospect of cleaning up The Good Dinosaur) deeply feels this material. The child of immigrants himself, Sohn’s personal story resonates within the material, giving us an authentic experience with which many audiences will obviously connect. It’s not a deep film, but it is deeply felt. I only wish it had more frequently embraced that classic Pixar trope of so expertly blending comic moments with emotional thematic material. Here, the equation feels out of balance, and while Elemental provides a largely satisfying experience, I felt that it needed something more than the singularly focused opposites attract love story.
Wearing your heart on your sleeve isn’t a bad thing. It just shouldn’t be the only thing.
Elemental opens Friday, June 16, in theaters nationwide.