ELEMENTAL – Review by Valerie Kalfrin

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Good intentions ripple through the Disney/Pixar film Elemental like the red-orange flames of its hotheaded protagonist. Yet despite some charming animation, the movie fizzles where it should pop, weighted by an overstuffed story that works much too hard.

A dedication during the credits to director Peter Sohn’s parents speaks to these honorable intentions. In interviews, Sohn (The Good Dinosaur) has shared how his memories of his parents, who immigrated from Korea and opened a grocery in the Bronx, helped form the narrative.

Yet that narrative changes shape often, much like the water-based characters here who squeeze through pipes and vents. Billed as an opposites-attract love story, Elemental is largely about the guilt a child of immigrant parents feels for having dreams of her own, along with heavy metaphors about prejudice.

In Element City, inhabitants representing earth, air, fire, and water live somewhat peaceably. The earth types, with leaves and trees sprouting from their heads, have names like Clod and ride the elevated train with the blob-like, fluid water types. The puffy cloud-like folks seem to prefer the Zeppelin. Water from the train tracks often sluices onto the streets below, where any fire people whip out umbrellas or scurry away to avoid being extinguished.

All the fire types live exclusively in Firetown, a separate section on Element City’s outskirts. They’re prohibited from entering exhibits and such in the city by others who recoil from their flames or post signs saying, “No Fire.”

The film opens as two immigrants made of flames land on Element City’s shores, seeking a fresh start. An official who doesn’t understand their language renames them Bernie (Ronnie Del Carmen, Soul) and Cinder (Shila Ommi, Tehran). Shunned from renting rooms, the couple finds Firetown and establishes the Fireplace, a cozy shop and café where they serve treats from the old country such as Lava Java and Coal Nuts and bristle at any suggestion to water down the cuisine or their culture.

Years later, their daughter, Ember (Leah Lewis, The Half of It), insists she’ll take over the store. But Ember has a short fuse around customers that makes her flames glow purplish white. When she blows her stack in the basement one day, she ruptures a water pipe, scooping city water inspector Wade (Mamoudou Athie, Jurassic World: Dominion) into the business and her life.

The script by John Hoberg, Kat Likkel (both of American Housewife), and Brenda Hsueh (Disjointed) is at its cutest as Wade and Ember get to know each other. Being made of water himself, the amiable Wade does well at his job and instantly cites the family business for unpermitted construction. Ember begs him to undo this, fearing upsetting her father, and the two stumble upon a larger problem of potential flooding for Firetown.

Meanwhile, Cinder sniffs out a happy change in her daughter’s mood, alarmed to learn that Wade is the reason and cautions that water and fire don’t mix.

The animators render these two adorably, especially Ember, who has a talent for molding glass. There’s a sweet moment where the two ride above Element City in a hot-air balloon that her hair keeps aloft, and Wade, his hair shaped like the crest of a wave, finds her radiant. Who wouldn’t?

Wade gallantly shields Ember from getting doused as they roam about town, even though he bubbles a bit on the inside at being close to her, like a pot on the cusp of a boil. He tends to get teary at the drop of a hat, too, something that Ember eventually finds endearing.

Elemental goes for the obvious jokes at times, like Wade telling Ember, “You’re hot” when she burns his bag, but it’s pleasant enough when it focuses on its unlikely pair. Unfortunately, Ember’s attention on saving her parents’ business but not actually wanting to follow in their footsteps becomes the main crux, relegating the love story to a subplot.

Its message of stepping out of your element also is as heavy-handed as it is predictable.

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Valerie Kalfrin

Valerie Kalfrin is an award-winning crime journalist turned freelance film writer whose work appears at RogerEbert.com, In Their Own League, Script, The Hollywood Reporter, and other outlets. Also a screenwriter and script consultant, she’s passionate about challenging stereotypes about gender and disability. Let’s tell better stories and tell stories better.