“Elemental” (2023) is a film with a lot of heart and weight to its seemingly simple story. The original animated film, made by Pixar and released by Walt Disney Studios, has received a heavily mixed reception since its first showing. Many claim that the storyline is repetitive and shapeless, the characters seem as crumbly as the floodwalls, and that it’s yet another misguided or even soulless attempt of Pixar’s to make us weep, all as part of their quest to sell anthropomorphized concepts of weather, nature, food, and our own minds. “Elemental” isn’t a groundbreaking new film like many of Pixar’s 2000s works, but it doesn’t have to be.
Pixar certainly has a reputation for emotional films. Some of their best-known pieces, including “Up” (2009) and “Coco” (2017), quickly became known as the animated emotional rollercoasters of their respective decades, and it was the original “Toy Story” trilogy that gave Pixar the fame of being the “make-you-cry” studio in the first place. But just because “Elemental” falls short of the golden standard of those films doesn’t make it inherently inferior to other movies of the day. In fact, it’s one of precious few in recent memory that I had a fun time going out to see, with no larger picture or big ideas behind it. It’s reminiscent of the “old” Pixar, if not in quality then in feeling.
“Elemental” uses a pretty classic story template, truth be told. It follows the life of a family of Fire elementals, living in their own section of a city that from what we’ve seen caters far more to the other three types of inhabitants — Water, Air, and Earth — all of which seem to have infinitely more of a sense of belonging. The Fire-people have long kept to their own small community deep in “Element City,” where Ember (Leah Lewis) lives and helps to run her family’s store. On her journey toward making her father proud and taking ownership of the shop, she runs into Wade (Mamoudou Athie), a Water-person and city inspector who has an admittedly strange fixation with doing his duty and crying, usually at the same time. The two of them journey about Element City during Ember’s quest to preserve her family’s business, buoyed by Wade’s desire to correct his mistakes, and they come together as a result of it.
“Elemental” contains plenty of plot holes, especially around the abilities of the characters. But all movies do, especially those meant for simple entertainment over perfect accuracy. After all, the real world is often pretty dirty and messy on its own; most of it wouldn’t make a great movie. We choose to focus on the best parts instead, and in my view “Elemental” does a great job of such. The animation is visually captivating, with not-quite-flashy displays of art style and many a scene beautifully brought to life. If the plot doesn’t quite fit the expectations of some movie-goers, the film’s visuals are good enough to deserve praise. And “Elemental” may have an “overused” plot, but maybe there’s a reason that that plot is overused: it entertains. In my view, the negative reception is partly due to its poor marketing and partly due to a lack of a “big image” for the film. In a time when many movies have an established series backing them up, original releases can suffer.
As one-offy as “Elemental” might seem, it’s not a cash-grab like many recent animated films. It’s enjoyable to watch, and that’s really what movies are meant for. The characters seem small, but humanly relatable, and the redundancy of the film’s plot is mainly a side effect of the fact that its intended audience (children) have increasingly low attention spans, as I can attest to. Looking through the art and expression of the film, you can see that care went into the characters and world, and I found the movie perfectly good to spend an afternoon watching. “Elemental” may not entertain to excess or become one of the most memorable films of all time, but when it comes to enjoyment, it fits the bill just fine.