It's a decidedly emotional outing as fire and water try a romantic mix in the latest big-scale animation effort from Disney-Pixar, though some may find the characters hard to connect to.
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Ember is a pretty typical Disney/Pixar heroine. She’s smart, plucky and empathetic, but feels like she’s not appreciated and listened to. The course in life that’s been laid out for her is not necessarily the one she wants, and she struggles to express that to family and friends. It’s only a matter of time before she rebels and charts herself a new, more adventuresome path.
She’s also a flaming-hot ball of pent-up anger. In “Elemental,” the latest big-scale animation effort from the Pixar, Ember lives in a city where creatures made up of the four primary elements co-exist, if not quite side-by-side: fire, water, earth and air. Ember is one of the fire people and struggles with containing her rage — which, of course, results in some (literally) volcanic eruptions.
Her romantic interest, Wade, is very much not your typical Disney ‘prince.’ He’s the beta-iest of beta males, a member of the water tribe who’s oh-so-passive and very much in touch with his feelings. And by ‘in touch’ I mean he cries at the drop of… well, anything. Wade probably spends half the movie tearing up.
I guess it’s definitely a departure from the usual square-jawed, one-dimensional lunkheads we see opposite the likes of Ariel in “The Little Mermaid” or Pocahontas. The animators even make a joke of this, having Wade first appear all swole up with muscles like Dwayne Johnson, drawing a pleased cooing from Ember. But then he shakes it off into his usual unimpressive, somewhat shlumpy self.
Behold, Disney’s dad-bod beau.
I’m all for dudes expressing their emotions, but I think the filmmakers overshot it with Wade. He seems to have absolutely no opinions or even identity of his own, merely acting as a formless vessel to project Ember’s reflected light — which he does quite well, being that he’s transparent and can change shape. The voice acting by Mamoudou Athie doesn’t help, full of pensive pauses and tremulous talk.
Let’s face it: Wade is a hard guy to relate to, and a bit of a drip.
Ember (voice by Leah Lewis) is obviously the star of the show, anyway. She’s the “straw that stirs the drink,” to borrow some sports talk. Her mother and father (Shila Ommi and Ronnie del Carmen, respectively) came to Elemental City to start a new life. They opened a bodega shop called The Fireplace full of staples used by the fire folk, such as knots of charcoal (food) and special heat-resistant clothing.
Now dad is getting old and coughing smoke a lot, so Ember is reaching the long-promised day when she can take over the shop. Problem is, she doesn’t have a lot of patience with customers and tends to blow her top. One day she decamps to the basement to vent, and ends up damaging the old pipes her father closed off years ago. Out pours Wade, having got trapped in a mysterious flash flood.
Wade is working as a city inspector and insists he has to write up a bunch of violations for all of the fixes and modifications Ember’s dad made over the years. Wade having a soft heart — and soft everything — later changes his mind and decides to help her, but his boss, Gale (Wendi McLendon-Covey), a windbag sports fanatic, gives them one week to fix the source of the leak in exchange for dismissing all the tickets.
(This is textbook corruption, not to mention terrible municipal management, but it’s a ’toon so I guess we’ll let it slide.)
Naturally, as Ember and Wade work through their forced partnership, they begin to develop feelings for each other. Wade’s family is open to the match, but Ember’s parents are very anti-water, given how the fire people are mostly shut out of the nicer parts of Elemental City. The water folks were the first to settle the area, followed by earth and air, and fire people are looked down upon as the new(est)comers.
The prime reason to see the movie is the outstanding animation and character design. I love the way Ember’s face and body flicker and float, changing color and shape according to her mood and the environment she’s interacting with. She can even mold metal with her hands and turn sand into glass.
Wade is less spectacular — I’m really dunking on this guy, ain’t I? — but still has some cool water tricks up his sleeve. (All the denizens wear clothes, for some reason.)
The earth tribe are various iterations of trees, logs and other plant life mixed with some stone and stuff, while the air-ies are just puffs of cloud. A lot of the designs may look familiar from other Pixar features and shorts, including “Partly Cloudy,” which was Peter Sohn’s first directorial effort.
And yes, if this whole theme of colorful creatures representing things primal seems to be… borrowing heavily, to use the polite term, from the previous Pixar film “Inside Out,” that’s because it is. I also detected notes from Sohn’s terrific first feature, “The Good Dinosaur,” about a youngling having to find their way. Similarly, “Elemental” has no true villain and is more about working through challenges and accepting your emotions.
The story — screenplay by John Hoberg, Kat Likkel, Brenda Hsueh — is an allegory for immigration, specifically Sohn’s own upraising in the 1970s melting pot of New York City. Elemental City is a seemingly happy place, and the first three elements mix happily, but the newer fire people are seen as dangerous and kept apart. After all, their flames can literally burn up the others just by accident.
Of course, fire and water seem the most incompatible, but Ember and Wade find a way. I know you’re going to ask how people can be lovers without being able to touch, but I’ll leave to you to find out what happens.
There’s a decent amount of chases and fun stuff in “Elemental,” though it’s certainly one of the least action-oriented Pixar movies we’ve seen in a while. Both of my boys, 9 and 12, liked it well enough and even compared it to “WALL·E,” one of their favorite animated movies (and mine), for its emphasis on empathy and learning to coexist.
I wasn’t quite as hot on it. Ember has got some spark, but I found Wade to be a total wash as her co-star/love interest. “Elemental” has some terrific visuals but the heart doesn’t quite seem to be all there.