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Elemental Review | Movie Metropolis

Pixar’s latest movie hit the big screens recently, amid talk of the incredibly successful studio’s apparent recent downturn in form, and less than impressive box office returns. Every Pixar movie since a certain animated Spider-Man hit our screens, has been struggling to carve out its own corner of a market that it used to dominate with its fellow Disney animated releases.

Now their new releases are often labelled as ‘simplistic’, ‘lacking vision’, or ‘by the book’, especially when animated movie makers continue to push the envelope with movies like the aforementioned Spider-Man movies, Puss-in-Boots most recent release, and by the looks of it, Seth Rogen’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie that is due to hit cinemas later this year. Like the live-action movie world, Pixar, regardless of its stable of legendary characters and stories, has entered a world where people, especially critics, want new, they want fresh, they want you to push the boundaries.

Well thankfully there are some creative forces at Pixar who realise that there are still plenty of us average movie goers who occasionally just want to walk out of our local cinema feeling all fuzzy and warm inside, and that’s where movies like the beautiful Elemental will always have a place.

Our latest Pixar hero is Ember, the young, hot-headed (literally) and talented daughter of Bernie and Cinder, who immigrated to Element City before Ember was born, in search for a new and better life after their home in Fire-Land was destroyed. Ember is being trained by her father to take over the family shop one day, a shop that Bernie has poured his heart and soul into, and a shop that forms the centre of Fire Town, the area of the city that now provides a home for its more hot-headed residents.

Still from Elemental by Pixar

Despite Embers regular struggles with her temper, she knows the day is coming when her father will hand over the reins, and the pressure will be on not just to keep the family business going, but also the cultural hub that her father has created too, preserving the memory of their people and where they came from, and to “keep the fire burning”. Then along comes Wade, a happy-go-lucky water-guy who appears out of one of the shops leaking pipes, and changes Ember’s outlook on life completely.

The plot itself is a fairly simple one, and actually just forms the backdrop to the movie. The characters are what flesh out this one, and they are a joy to spend time with in this instance, each of them with their own distinct voices, ideas and character arcs, even if some are at times cliche. Pixar has long had a history of weaving complex and emotive subjects into its storytelling, and it is no different here, with the topics of integration and immigration predominantly at the forefront.

The way the Fire-people keep mostly to themselves in Element City, for fear of being shunned and disrespected, is a mirror image of most modern cities today, where minority groups are (mostly) made to feel unwelcome and as if they don’t belong, and this message is continually pushed through, throughout the movie, and it is an emotive one that at times touches close to the bone.

The issue of relationships between people of different cultures and background is also prevalent, and is handled in such a way that it will hopefully educate children, albeit in a simplified way, in this matter, as well as being a complex enough subject that adults can appreciate too. Both Wade and Ember are from completely different worlds, and ones that continually clash, but the movie, like all good Pixar and Disney movies should, push home the important message that whilst it is important to remember where you have come from, this shouldn’t necessarily affect the choices you make in life, especially when they are choices of the heart.

Embers’ family and culture especially, are portrayed brilliantly, with the Fire-people’s traditions and beliefs shining brightly in everything they do. Culture and tradition are heavily explored, and the prevailing message once again is that these aspects of life should help us on our journey, to overcome barriers we may face, rather than be the thing that creates the barriers in the first place.

Now many animated movies have carried good messages, and looked to tackle some big issues, but it all counts for nought if you don’t have the characters and performances to push that message home in a way that will resonate with kids, and adults, but also entertain! Luckily Elemental possesses a small roster of characters designed to do just that.

They may not rival some of the studio’s finest creations (Woody, Carl, Dory, Wall-E….etc) but thanks to some impressive, subtle and heartfelt voice performances, the central characters are a joy to be around. Ember herself is given a steely core by relative newcomer Leah Lewis, with a bit of teen angst thrown in, which makes her the most relatable character by far.

Embers’ parents, especially her father Bernie, carry most of the movies cultural heavy lifting, with Ronnie Del Carmen perfectly delivering Bernie’s unique brand of “Firish” mixed with broken English. Bernie gives us some of the most emotive beats of the movie, especially when recalling his past and eulogising about the Fire-people’s cherished traditions and culture.

As good as both Carmen and Lewis are, the voice performer having the most fun here is Mamoudou Athie as Wade. Athie has a ball of a time with Wade, making him both the funniest and most emotional character in the movie, with a voice that lends itself perfectly to the swishing and wailing of the water people. It’s between himself and Ember that the movie burns brightest, with their budding romance easily providing the best scenes in the movie, with both seeming reluctant at first before leaning into each other’s eccentricities and learning that differences don’t always mean problems. It’s incredibly refreshing to see Pixar choose to do away with the traditional villain of most animation movies, and instead just concentrate, for the most part, on the relationship developing between Ember and Wade.

All this emotive message pushing and general feel good feeling does not, however, mean the movie is faultless. Far from it. As I mentioned at the start of my review, this does come at the cost of a compelling central plot, and some perhaps more cynical or critical minds might find this frustrating. The small amount of plot there is, revolving around Embers attempts to live up to her dad’s expectations, is indeed thin, and fades as the movie goes on. Whether you find this point irrelevant or frustrating, will largely determine how you see and judge this movie. Some will also feel that the cultural and social messages present here are pushed home with too heavy a hand at times, and also that some of the other elements outside of the central fire/water dynamic, are given short shrift, and purely act as backing characters more than anything.

These are all valid points and criticisms, and are perhaps what will prevent Elemental from being talked about in the same breath as Pixar classics like Toy Story, Monsters Inc, Ratatouille and Inside Out. But, and its an important but…..Elemental is Pixar doing what Pixar does best. It is an animated movie with a warm, fuzzy centre, mixed in with broader issues dealt with in a delicate but truthful manor, that has the ability to leave both children and adults entertained. From my own extensive experience of watching Pixar, Disney, Dreamworks, and a whole host of other animation movies, I would say that Elemental does exactly what it should do, and does it very well.

It’s beautiful to look at, has wonderful characters, and a heartfelt backdrop of culture and family. And as cheesy as it sounds, it is a beautifully and innocently told love story, one that makes us all feel as if powerful notions such as true love do actually exist in this hard and at times brutal world of ours…..and they do! So if that doesn’t make you feel all fuzzy and warm inside, then not much else will! The simple message is: enjoy this movie for what it is, not what you want it to be.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

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