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Leah Lewis and Mamoudou Athie star in a new Pixar film, directed by Peter Sohn, now streaming on Disney Plus.
Ember Lumen (voiced by Leah Lewis) is an only child of immigrants.
She has grown up with a burning ambition to take over her father's neighborhood shop, which caters to others of their kind, who are purely fire in their essence. Taught from childhood that 'elements don't mix,' Ember endeavors to keep a safe distance from all the other residents of Element City: water, earth and air.
This is made easier because the Fire neighborhood is a dingy, minority neighborhood, located across a bridge from the big shining city where the majority of other Element City residents live. It's meant, no doubt, to evoke comparisons to Manhattan and the Outer Boroughs, and it visually conveys that idea, neatly and easily.
Ember prides herself on her 24/7 work ethic, learned from her beloved parents, Bernie and Cinder, who both work constantly to provide for themselves and their equally beloved daughter. One day, their calm and peaceful lives are interrupted by the surprise visit of a building inspector named Wade Ripple (voiced by Mamoudou Athie), a water element who is weepy and sappy, yet firm about enforcing Element City's building code.
Thus sparks a relationship between Ember and Wade that proceeds kindly and gently to remind the viewing audience that opposites attract. And that's okay.
Refreshing in its simplicity, Elemental is nonetheless beautiful to behold, as much as any Pixar movie in memory.
It's also quite clever, as evidenced by a multitude of puns in shop signs. The absence of a true 'Big Bad' villain character minimizes the 'one versus another' riffing, which seems to have become a plague in the modern era of animated features. The freedom from that artificial construct is invigorating.
Instead, attention is drawn to conflicts of greater meaning, which escalate steadily as a result of general neglect in the neighborhood, fostered by indifference and/or disinterest by those in power, both financially and otherwise. It serves as a gentle reprimand, with echoes in the real world.
Raised in New York City by immigrant parents (from Korea), director Peter Sohn is a Pixar veteran, having worked as an animator, production artist, story artist, and voice talent. Previously, he helmed The Good Dinosaur, which, in its own way, dealt with natural elements and living in harmony with them.
Sohn has said that his own experience informed his pitch for the movie, which grounds it in the reality of a life experience that feels entirely authentic. Elemental succeeds where others have failed, bringing an immigrant story into an animated world with truth and affection.
Originally published June 14, 2023, by Screen Anarchy. The film is now streaming on Disney Plus.