Pixar’s latest animation takes us to Element City, a place where air, wind, fire and earth people all live together in harmony. Well, almost. The anthropomorphised blobs of ‘fire’ are rather frowned upon, as Bernie (voiced by Ronnie Del Carmen) and Cinder (Shila Ommi) soon discover when they arrive from their homeland. Renting an apartment is a big no-no, when the landlords are all ‘earth’ people that look like tree shrubs and naturally consider fire a danger ("Dry leaves!" squawks one, before slamming the door in their faces).
Eventually Bernie and Cinder settle outside the city in Fire Town, where they open a store, Fireplace, selling all sorts of fire-related paraphernalia (like coal nuts, made by Bernie). Using this as a backdrop, Elemental could’ve been an interesting study of the immigrant experience. But it soon switches to a more conventional coming-of-age story: moving on a few years, it finds Bernie and Cinder’s grown-up daughter Ember (Leah Lewis) ready to take over the store… were it not for the fact she has a terrible temper ("Take a break, make connection," she keeps saying, like a mantra).
With her father’s health ailing, Ember feels compelled to run Fireplace, without ever asking herself what she wants. Then, after an accident in the basement, she meets Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie), a 'water' person who’s also a city inspector. He’s about to close the store down, due to various safety issues, but falls for Ember. "We can’t touch," they cry, as the film sets out to explore how these two characters who are such polar opposites can make it as a couple. Again, the film raises ideas of difference and barriers, yet it never really feels as if the challenges facing Ember and Wade are insurmountable.
Directed by Peter Sohn (The Good Dinosaur), Elemental offers beautifully rendered visuals, most notably in an underwater trip to visit a rare flower. Vocally, Athie is a comic delight as Wade; a character prone to bursting into tears, his flashback to a terrifying encounter with a sponge is a particular joy. And there are gags aplenty – including a game of tag played out in Wade’s watery home by two relatives, Marco and Polo (geddit?). No doubt, there’s a lot to like about Elemental, but you’re left wishing it had pushed further and deeper, rather than just tentatively exploring its themes.