This is my first entry in a series I’ve longed to do: The Belated Movie Review. As much as I enjoy writing about the Disney parks, my first love is the movies, and Hollywood generally. In fact, one of my first blog posts was a (perhaps lengthy) review of Pixar’s Turning Red. As much as I enjoyed writing that, it can be hard to watch a movie in one sitting, much less on a weeknight after the kids go to sleep and I finish my work for the evening. I also sometimes feel discouraged because I often can’t review movie as soon as it is released, much less before that when the major publications, podcasts, and influencers, get invited to screeners. But, my interest in film persists, and so I decided it was time to start this new series, if anything for busy parents like me who watch a movie whenever they get the chance. The goal is to write about whatever movies I watch, whether they be recently released, or a favorite from the past. This series will not be limited to Disney films, though it will start with one because my kids have been watching it non-stop. I aim to keep the reviews relatively succinct (here’s hoping), with a dash of any on-set, behind the scenes, box office, or other industry information, because well, isn’t that half the fun? Also, I think my wife would enjoy me having this outlet so she doesn’t have to unpack each film for half an hour as the credits—which I usually read—roll. Here goes!
What hasn’t been said about the Disney/Pixar film that landed with a fizz only to grow into a flame, all while seemingly holding the reputation of its studio on its back? In many ways Elemental was set up for a dismal reaction, given the once untouchable studio’s interesting choice of recent releases, (Toy Story 4, Lightyear, Soul, Luca, Turning Red), some of which underperformed theatrically, others of which never got the chance due to pandemic-related day an date releases on Disney+. Regardless of the medium, Pixar’s recent titles have failed to connect with audiences in the same way its earlier films did. The general audience (myself included) didn’t know what to make of the film as marketed, and it was met with online obituaries when it opened to $29.5 million back in June—Pixar’s lowest opening weekend to date. (Yes, even lower than The Good Dinosaur, also directed by Peter Sohn.) The film eventually showed steady legs, grossing near $500 million world wide and later boasting the biggest steaming debut of the year on Disney+. Elemental, to me, recaptures some of the Pixar magic, in a package that is eye-catching enough for younger viewers with just the amount of poignancy for adult viewers.
Set in the colorful Element City, filled with settings and characters that are inspired by natural elements (water, fire, earth, air) the story follows Ember, a second-generation flame element. Ember works at her father’s bodega, an establishment built with his own hands after her parents emigrated from Fireland. Ember enjoys her upbringing in the fire enclave, clearly a nod to an outer borough in New York City, until she meets Wade, a water element who accidentally bursts through the bodega’s pipes after Ember angrily shoots flames at customers on a busy day. The main plot involves Ember trying to stop Wade, a city inspector, from shutting the bodega down, and the resultant happenings when he initially succeeds in getting it shut down. But underpinning that is an allegory about race and immigration and family and guilt that weighs on Ember. Heavy stuff, and perhaps too nuanced a topic to be deftly handled by a Disney film. That’s not to say it doesn’t try. There are some relatable moments, especially when Ember meets Wade’s clearly more financially well—off family, some of which remark on her ability to speak so clearly. (As a Mexican American, and first generation college graduate, I can certainly relate to such comments, which occur to this day. I digress.)
We learn about Ember’s own flame-blowing talents, her parents’ sacrifices, her desire to explore life behind the bodega, and her and Wade’s growing feelings for each other. Elements don’t mix, apparently, and thus, some personal conflict. From a distance, the themes, while complicated, are resonant, if ambitious. Watching along with my children, I couldn’t help but be enamored with the animation itself, the constant movement of the characters depending on their element, the brilliant colors, the vibrant cityscape that was almost too much to perceive. Though it reminded me of Zootopia at times, Element City is unique enough to enjoy some sort of attention at a Disney park. I also enjoyed the new age music (composed by Thomas Newman), and the soundtrack contribution by Lauv (“Steal the Show). Essentially, I was pleasantly surprised by Elemental. Does the film deserve a place among the upper pantheon of Pixar greats? Not quite. But it was surprisingly entertaining, and a visual treat. At this moment, that’s something for Pixar to celebrate.
Elemental is now streaming on Disney+.
Director: Peter Sohn.
Writers: John Hoberg, Kat Likkel, Brenda Hsueh.
Starring: Leah Lewis, Mamoudou Athie, Ronnie Del Carmen, Shila Ommi, Wendi McLendon-Covey.