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Enough steam: Fire meets Water in Pixar’s clever and increasingly charming ‘Elemental’

Not surprisingly, the visuals impress in unusual animated romance


For a while, “Elemental” feels like little more than a reasonably clever idea, the latest from Disney affiliate Pixar Animation Studios finding an unusual way to illustrate the differences — and, ultimately, similarities — among folks of various cultural backgrounds.

However, this tale in which personified Fire, Water, Earth and Air residents live together in the metropolis Element City finds its footing as it leans on tried-and-true plot devices from romances featuring star-crossed lovers and stories about parents and their children.

“Elemental” is inspired by the experiences of its director, Peter Sohn, a second-generation immigrant, his parents bringing him to the United States from Korea when he was a child. He’d go on to marry an American woman after initially hiding the relationship from his family. (He says in the film’s production notes that his grandmother’s dying words literally were “Marry Korean!”)

Bursting with vibrant colors, the gorgeous affair begins by introducing a Fire couple, Bernie (Ronnie del Carmen) and Cinder Lumen (Shila Ommi), arriving by boat from the Fireland to start a new life, bringing with them only a blue flame representing their past and people. After a not-so-hot introduction to Element City — least structurally hospitable to the Fire folks, as they were the last to arrive and make a place for themselves — the Lumens find a spot in the Firetown neighborhood. They open up a shop, the Fireplace, and, more importantly, have a baby girl, Ember.

Years later, the grown Ember (Leah Lewis) is set to inherit the shop from her retirement-age father, but she has a tendency of becoming, well, hot when it comes to the behavior of customers. She desperately wants to please her dad, but she must show she can keep her relative cool before he hands over the Fireplace to her.

The residents of Firetown live in fear of water, so when a leak happens in the store, it’s a big problem. Unfortunately for Ember, who discovers it, washing in with all the H2O is a Water fellow, Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie). He’s a city inspector, and he believes the Fireplace is in violation of various building codes.

After initially sending in his report to the city higher-ups, the good-natured Wade agrees to help Ember in her efforts to keep the business running.

At first glance, the two couldn’t be more different. She’s tough, strong-willed and, yes, fiery. He’s soppy and sappy, like other members of his fluid family prone to bursting into tears the moment he hears something emotionally stirring. Ironically, though, considering his kind’s natural malleability, he’s a very solid guy, as Ember grows to appreciate.

Wade (Mamoudou Athie) and Ember (Leah Lewis) take in a movie, "Tide and Prejudice," in a scene from "Elemental." (Courtesy of Disney/Pixar)
Wade (Mamoudou Athie) and Ember (Leah Lewis) take in a movie, “Tide and Prejudice,” in a scene from “Elemental.” (Courtesy of Disney/Pixar)

That doesn’t change the fact that if they get too close, he could extinguish her or she could evaporate him. Even if they somehow find a way past that, Ember believes her parents would never accept him, her proud but stubborn father especially.

As we’ve come to expect from Pixar, “Elemental” is consistently inventive, certainly with its visuals. You don’t want to take your eyes off Element City or its residents, especially Ember, her ever-burning form no doubt the work of myriad artistic and technical folks. The blobby but buoyant Wade is a pretty neat creation, as well.

Penned by John Hoberg, Kat Likkel and Brenda Hsueh, with a story by Sohn, Hoberg, Likkel and Hsueh, “Elemental” serves up more than the requisite of situational puns, one Fire character calling another a “lazy ash.” Again, though, it grows increasingly affecting, the film is likely to give you at least a mild case of the feels before its end credits roll.

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As Pixar films sometimes do, it largely eschews the casting of big names but gets strong work from its key players. Lewis (“The Half of It”) really helps bring Ember to vivid life, while Athie (“Jurassic World: Dominion”) infuses Wade with an appealing steady-Eddie if also deeply compassionate vibe.

And in portraying a character who seems to have borrowed, um, elements from different ethnic groups, del Carmen (co-director of Pixar’s “Inside Out”) brings a dimensionality to Bernie that is revealed over time.

The most easily recognizable voice is that of Catherine O’Hara (“Best in Show,” “Schitt’s Creek”), who brings a little pizazz to Brook, Wade’s mother, who is very accepting of Ember.

Brook Ripple (voiced by Catherine O'Hara), right, is very welcoming to Ember (Leah Lewis) when her son Wade (Mamoudou Athie) brings the Fire girl home to a Water family dinner. (Courtesy of Disney/Pixar)
Brook Ripple (voiced by Catherine O’Hara), right, is very welcoming to Ember (Leah Lewis) when her son Wade (Mamoudou Athie) brings the Fire girl home to a Water family dinner. (Courtesy of Disney/Pixar)

Like many PIxar efforts in recent years, including an Academy Award winner or two and 2015’s Sohn-directed “The Good Dinosaur,” “Elemental” doesn’t reside among the studio’s best work, such as 2009’s “Up.”

(By the way, “Elemental” is preceded by “Carl’s Date,” a cute “Up”-verse short film featuring Ed Asner returning to voice charming curmudgeon Carl, who gets advice about the opposite sex from talking dog Dug, voiced by director Bob Peterson.)

That said, “Elemental” has enough winning elements to make time for it in the busy summer season.


Where: Theaters.

When: June 16.

Rated: PG for some peril, thematic elements and brief language.

Runtime: 1 hour, 42 minutes.

Stars (of four): 3.