Depending on who you ask, Pixar has been in a bit of a slump lately, both creatively and successfully. It all began during the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, when their latest release at the time Onward was pulled from theaters and sent to Disney's brand-new streaming service Disney+. This seemed like a no-brainer at the time since theaters were shutting down and this way audiences could still enjoy their latest offering in the comfort of their own homes. As theaters opened back up, Disney opted to keep releasing their films exclusively to Disney+ and audiences became accustomed to the practice of watching Pixar at home. The studio's following three films debuted straight to the streaming service before Disney decided it was time for Pixar to make its return to theaters last summer with Lightyear. The film massively underperformed, leading many to question if Disney itself had trained audiences to devalue the brand and "wait til streaming". But Lightyear's other problem was it wasn't very good. One year later, they're trying again with Elemental, an animated opposites-attract love story that doubles as an immigration tale.
For a studio that once never had a misfire, their offerings since 2010's Toy Story 3, have been a mixed bag with really great films like Inside Out and Coco becoming more of the exception than the rule. Creatively they've been in a rut, either relying on sequels or formulas that feel derivative, trying desperately to replicate the success of their past hits. Elemental looked very much to fall in the latter category, and the truth is it does more often than not feel like a lesser version of Pixar's previous classics. Yet, it has enough charm and sweetness to elevate a story that feels overly familiar.
Elemental follows Ember (Leah Louis), a fire girl whose parents Bernie and Cinder emigrate from their Fire country to Element City to start a brand new life with their child. The town isn't made for their kind, so they have to carve out a place for themselves. They find a community of other firepeople nearby and Bernie opens a shop catering exclusively to their unique needs and tastes. Bernie trains his young daughter to work in the shop, and she spends her years growing up knowing one day, so long as she learns to control her temper, she will inherit her father's shop and legacy. One day, her life is turned upside down when she meets Wade (Mamoudou Athie), a water guy who is her polar opposite in every way. While Ember tends to let her emotions get the best of her in a way that makes her blow up with anger, she learns that Wade will cry at the drop of a hat. She finds that the more she's around him, the more they balance each other out and bring out one another's strengths. Wade calms her spirit and encourages her to have her own dreams that play to her own gifts, to do what would actually make her happy. It soon becomes clear that the two have deeper feelings for one another, but their love seems impossible from every standpoint.
Elemental's plot feels like a 90's sitcom episode plot dropped into the high-concept creative world-building of a Pixar film. Two well-known storylines are relied on heavily here, the first being a star-crossed romance and the second being a parent pushing their kid to live the parent's dream for the child, instead of encouraging them to pursue their own interests. This makes a movie that's trying so hard to feel original, ultimately feel really unoriginal. Yet somehow, as worn as these tropes are and as heavy-handed as its metaphor and messaging can feel, it really is able to rise above that and draw you into it.
What really works with Elemental is the earnest and sentimental way in which Ember and Wade's affection for one another grows throughout the film. From their meet cute, I really wasn't sure if I was going to buy into this relationship whatsoever, but it turned out to be the winning ingredient of the film. Credit must be due to Leah Lewis and Mamoudou Athie's winsome performances in being able to make us root for these characters and their blossoming romance. They have an easy chemistry and you can't help but smile at their scenes together.
While I enjoyed Elemental, I must admit that I don't see it having very much rewatchability for either kids or adults, which is essential to a good kid's movie. I just don't see children having any desire to revisit this, which very much makes this a one-time watch. Its story won't resonate with younger viewers and its setting and concept are amusing at best and gimmicky at worst. Still, while it won't inspire repeat viewings, it's still worth it to take the trip to visit Element City at least once.