Pixar Goes Back to Basics With Earth, Water, Wind, and Fire


Poster for ELEMENTAL (2023)

Pixar is back to basics with Elemental.

In the best way, that means Pixar is up to their old shenanigans. Like in Toy Story; Monsters, Inc.; The Incredibles; Cars; Coco; or whatever your favorite film from the studio is, Elemental builds its plot around a one-of-a-kind world with its own set of rules. But instead of toys or vehicles, the classic elements of Earth, Water, Wind, and Fire have become personified. Ember Lumen (Leah Lewis) is a resident of Firetown just outside Element City. She dreams of one day running the bodega her immigrant parents Bernie (Ronnie Del Carmen) and Cinder (Shila Ommi) built from the ground up. The one thing in her way: her uncontrollable temper, which is pushed to the limit when Water-based city inspector Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie) finds enough violations to shut down the family business. The one thing she didn’t expect: could sparks be flying between a Fire girl and a Water guy? 

FUTURE’S SO BRIGHT -- In Disney and Pixar’s “Elemental,” fiery young woman Ember (voice of Leah Lewis) lives with her immigrant parents in Firetown—a borough of Element City, where fire-, water-, land- and air-residents live together. Directed by Peter Sohn (“The Good Dinosaur,” “Party Cloudy” short) and produced by Denise Ream (“The Good Dinosaur,” “Cars 2”), Disney and Pixar’s “Elemental” releases on June 16, 2023. © 2023 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

As Ember and Wade jump through hoops to save The Fireplace, we explore the four quadrants of Element City and the endless puns and sight gags Pixar has built its reputation on. (If I had a dime for every time I think of the line, “…and there’s déjà vu…” from Inside Out…) Fire people power their own hot air balloons! Wind plays basketball in the sky while Water creates a true wave in the stands! And Earth grows flowers in their armpits? Like the best Pixar movies, Elemental is a visual stunner with so much detail in each character and the background of every frame you can’t catch it all in one watch.

In another sense, back to basics means, well, basic. Elemental is plenty charming, but its characters are familiar and its story beats what you expect. Soul was my favorite film of 2020 because it dared to explore complex ideas while making them fun. Inside Out created vernacular for conversations around mental health. Toy Story is about what it means to be human and worthy of love. While the message of Elemental is just as important as those other titles’, it lacks their subtlety. Characters assert many times, “Elements don’t mix!” in opposition to Ember and Wade’s blooming romance. Ember’s parents are both Fire, Wade’s sister’s girlfriend is Water, and friendships between elements appear limited, but no one attempts to justify their behavior beyond the simplest of explanations. The de facto segregation of this New York City-esque community seems less attributable to prejudice than to the idea of “mixing” has never even occurred to most residents. Great stories have been told about the challenges multicultural relationships face, but this does not have a fraction of the nuance, risk, or inspiration ingrained in West Side Story.

SUPERFAN -- In Disney and Pixar’s “Elemental,” fire-woman Ember (voice of Leah Lewis) and water-guy Wade (voice of Mamoudou Athie) track down air-resident and superfan Gale (voice of Wendi McLendon-Covey) at Cyclone Stadium where the crowd cheers for their home Air Ball team, the Cropdusters. Directed by Peter Sohn (“The Good Dinosaur,” “Party Cloudy” short) and produced by Denise Ream (“The Good Dinosaur,” “Cars 2”), Disney and Pixar’s “Elemental” releases on June 16, 2023. © 2023 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Perhaps this is Pixar overcompensating for the soft criticism that Soul was too high concept for family movie night, but Elemental living up to its name does not mean it’s a failure. (This doesn’t have the anarchic energy of Cars 2, Pixar’s only subpar output.) Of the 11 films the studio released in the 2010s, 7 were sequels, and the combination of the pandemic and Disney’s over enthusiasm for its own streaming platform has made it difficult for them to maintain cultural caché in the 2020s. But with a new story built on their core strength of world building and a what-was-once-normal theatrical release (even accompanied by an Up short starring the late Ed Asner!), perhaps we are returning to homeostasis for one of Hollywood’s most clever, creative, and reliable groups of storytellers.