Movie review: 'Elemental' a moving, exciting, if not subtle, metaphor

Wade and Ember walk through Element City. Photo courtesy of Disney/Pixar
1 of 5 | Wade and Ember walk through Element City. Photo courtesy of Disney/Pixar

June 10 (UPI) -- Elemental, in theaters Friday, is a meaningful story with striking visuals. It's not as subtle as Pixar's best but it's still worthwhile.

Element City is home to fire, water, earth and air people. Bernie (Ronnie Del Carmen) and Cinder Lumen (Shila Ommi) immigrate to a Fire City neighborhood where they raise their daughter, Ember (Leah Lewis). Bernie wants Ember to take over the family shop one day.


Customers tend to set off Ember's temper, which expresses itself explosively. Despite Bernie's attempts to teach her to control her temper, one day Ember accidentally explodes the pipes causing water man Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie) to pour into the shop.

Wade is a city inspector and notices multiple code violations, so Ember follows him into Element City to try to save the family store. Problems keep mounting and it will take the combined forces of all the elements to work them out.


A city of basic elements seems like a bit more of a reach than other hidden societies Pixar has tackled. Insects in A Bug's Life and fish in Finding Nemo already exist together in non anthropomorphized forms.

Even bedroom cities of toys in Toy Story or monsters in Monsters, Inc. make sense as societies those creatures might form. Sure, Cars was even more of a stretch, but Element City seems to be reverse-engineered from the themes writers John Hoberg, Kat Likkel and Brenda Hsueh and director Peter Sohn wanted to address.

The story of immigrants building a community that resembles the home they left is obvious. Fire City is clearly inspired by India in its design, fonts for lettering, music and even spicy foods served there.

Pixar's Turning Red actually used the human community that exists in Chinatown, but metaphorical representations are valid.

It's a bit of a reach to shoehorn themes of racism into basic elements. Fire and water people are divided, in part based on legitimate fears at how one can literally extinguish or evaporate the other, but also due to irrational prejudices that have grown from those factors.

Disney handled the above metaphors more organically in their 2016 animated film Zootopia. The animal city visually addressed how a metropolis would have to adapt to animals of different sizes, and addressed racism between predator and prey animals.


Element City and its inhabitants certainly achieve a look unique to Pixar. The characters are adorable and they can use fire and water powers to interact with the environments. Even air people puff and earth people sprout flowers.

If the immigration and prejudice themes are a bit heavy-handed, Elemental is more subtle about two additional themes. Throughout her adventure, Ember learns that aggression makes people shut down defensively, but being sincere leads some to open up with you.

That is a lesson that many adults never learn, but it's true that humbling oneself has a far greater chance of convincing someone to help than yelling or demanding. Wade teaches Ember that by example and by guiding her.

The other relevant theme is about being true to one's heart. Through her adventure, Ember realizes that she wants more than taking over the family business, which is reasonable and also painful because she doesn't want to be ungrateful to her parents.

Wade and Ember have a Romeo and Juliet relationship, though Wade's family is far more inviting and supportive. There are practical hurdles to existing in each other's worlds, as Ember assumes they can't even touch because he'd douse her.

Wade is able to find compatibilities by thinking outside the box. That is another important lesson, that just because one can't participate in an activity others take for granted doesn't mean they can't find other worthwhile ways to participate.


Disability is a more subtle background theme. Ember comments that Element City isn't made for fire people, which sounds very much like addressing a lack of ADA compliance for people with disabilities. That part is more subtle than the film's overt themes of immigration and racism.

All of this is wrapped up in an adventure through a unique environment with plenty of comic relief. Signage around Element City is full of puns, and the script mines some laughs out of Wade's heightened sensitivity and Ember's volatile personality.

Elemental entertains with unique visuals and an uplifting message. It could be subtler about the message but its heart is in the right place.

Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001 a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012 and the Critics Choice Association since 2023. Read more of his work in Entertainment.

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