‘Elemental’ Review: Peter Sohn Takes the Well-Worn Formula and Turns It Into a Visually Stunning and Poignant Cinematic Experience

elemental review

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Fire and water do not mix. They are incompatible – fire causes water to boil while the water douses the fire. Now, what if these elements are translated into characters of opposite sexes while exploring the possibility when they end up becoming an unlikely couple? That’s the premise behind Pixar’s latest animated feature, ‘Elemental,’ using the age-old romantic comedy formula. It was the kind of movie where opposites attract: Ember (voiced by Leah Lewis) is a short-tempered fire girl, while Wade (Mamoudou Athie) is a sensitive water guy.

We first see them in a meet-cute situation during a mysterious burst pipe at Ember’s father’s (Ronnie Del Carmen’s Bernie) store. If you are familiar with romantic comedies, you can predict where the story leads to: Girl meets boy, they don’t get along at first until something happens that unexpectedly draws them together, and next thing you know, they fall in love. But not without enduring a series of setbacks, notably Ember’s father, whose rigid and old-fashioned mindset forbids her to love someone that isn’t their kind (fire).

Working from John Hoberg, Kat Likkel, and Brenda Hsueh’s screenplay, Peter Sohn (‘The Good Dinosaur’) uses this angle as a metaphor for delving into the cultural clash and the interracial relationship between the fire (Ember) and water (Wade). Ember’s father doesn’t enjoy the presence of any water people, let alone Wade walking into their life – specifically, her daughter’s life.

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His reason? She cannot be together with Wade because of the elemental consequences that will do more harm than good. This, in turn, puts Ember in a conflicted and tough position. But Wade, amidst all his goofy personality, is more of an open-minded water guy. He doesn’t pretend to be masculine and isn’t afraid to express his feeling. The movie also showcases the side of his more laid-back family, as Wade’s parents are fine with their son going out with Ember.

The story doesn’t break any new ground, and just like Wade’s personality, Sohn gamely embraces the otherwise shopworn formula and turns it into something beautiful and heartwarming. A testament that a movie can be better than expected, even if it’s a tired formula, as long as it has the solid backing of a well-written story and characters.

The incorporated elements of interracial romance and cultural differences hit home with its relatable storytelling, while it’s hard not to get invested with Ember and Wade. Their chemistry feels genuine rather than manufactured and superficial, and it helps excellent voice performances back the movie. Leah Lewis is undoubtedly the movie’s MVP here with her perfectly spunky turn as Ember. Mamoudou Athie is equally praiseworthy, exuding a mix of quirky charm and emotional vulnerability into his voice work as Wade.

Sohn doesn’t just restrict within the boundaries of a rom-com genre as he also explores the father-daughter dynamic between Bernie and Ember. Bernie has high hopes for his daughter, working tirelessly from the day he and his wife Cinder (Shila Ommi) left their home country to Element City to start a new life. He even teaches his daughter how to run their store business because he wants her to inherit it one day.

And not to forget, the added immigrant angle earlier in the movie – another metaphor that depicts this fire family as foreigners seeking greener pastures, where Element City is a representation of a land of opportunity for all elements (the other two include earth and air) to coexist and make a living.

It may look as if Sohn has a lot of things to say by cramming multiple elements (no pun intended) in a single movie. At the hands of a lesser director, this might end up as a bloated outcome, but Sohn does a great job combining everything together into a cohesive whole.

Speaking of Element City, the animation is gorgeous and stunning. It’s hard not to get basked in this otherwise fictional metropolis’s architectural and multicultural sights. Sohn and his team of animators even go as far as detailing certain areas of the city, namely the more intimate neighborhood of Fire Town and the colorful Cyclone Stadium.

Kudos also go to the distinctive character designs on all four elements. They are far from just cute-looking characters as the animators meticulously render the way they are supposed to move. For instance, fire is more erratic in its nature. It can go brighter or dimmer, depending on the situation, reflecting the temperamental personality that goes into Ember. The same also goes for Wade, whose water element is more voluminous and reflective. No doubt, the fluidity of their movements is nice and fascinating to look at without resorting to making them look too human.

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Finally, Thomas Newman, who has been composing several Pixar movies such as ‘Finding Nemo’ and ‘WALL-E,’ delivers one of the best film scores ever for the Emeryville animation studio. He incorporates Indian-inspired musical instruments that mirror the movie’s various metaphorical themes and character arcs, giving the movie an overall unique soundscape.

SCORE: 9/10

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