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An Elemental misstep from Pixar

What if the four elements had feelings? Filmmaker Peter Sohn’s gentle, compassionate storytelling may have something to offer family audiences…if he can break away from what has become a rut in Pixar thinking.

Detail from the poster for Pixar's film "Elemental" (Image: Wikipedia)

The golden age of Pixar lasted a decade and a half, spanning ten films from Toy Story to Up. In those days the studio routinely knocked out masterpieces, and even the occasional lesser film (A Bug’s Life, Cars) was still pretty good. Pixar’s process of creative collaboration was an important part of its success, and gave the films of that era a distinctive vibe, rich in empathy, wonder, imagination, and optimism. Anthropomorphic world building was close to Pixar’s center of gravity, and a popular meme frames the premise of various Pixar films around variations on the question “What if X had feelings?” (where X = toys, fish, cars, robots, etc.), culminating in Pixar chief Pete Docter’s Inside Out: “What if feelings had feelings?”

Other than Docter himself (whose most recent film is Soul), perhaps no one at Pixar today aspires to the studio’s glory days more than Peter Sohn, director of The Good Dinosaur and now Elemental (along with the charming short Partly Cloudy). Sohn commits to his what-if worlds with a loving attention to detail comparable to Monsters, Inc. or Wall-E: in the case of Elemental, “What if the four elements—Fire, Water, Air, and Earth—had feelings?”

Elemental opens with an immigration story: Fireland natives Bernie and Cinder Lumen (Ronnie del Carmen and Shila Ommi, and yes, all the character names are elemental puns) are part of the latest wave of immigrants moving into Element City, a Zootopia-like urban community of enclaves representing the four elements. Despite some some “Fire need not apply” type prejudice from the more established elements, the Lumens manage to build a family business in Firetown, where their daughter Ember (Leah Lewis) grows up dreaming of inheriting the shop—if she can learn to control her temper. Then Ember meets a sensitive Water elemental named Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie) in highly inauspicious circumstances, and, though neither of them realizes it for a while, a gentle tale of star-crossed lovers commences.

Sohn’s movies to date are generous and sincere as well as whimsical and inventive. The protagonists of both of his feature films have loving, intact families with supportive parents who genuinely want the best for their offspring. Most of Sohn’s notable characters are good-hearted; minor characters in The Good Dinosaur included a couple of gangs of nasty predators (pterosaurs and velociraptors), but the real antagonist was nature itself. As for Elemental, it’s a rarity in US animation, a film with no nasty or villainous characters at all.

Prejudice and discrimination exist in this world, but no real hatred or bigotry comparable to King Triton’s antipathy toward surface people or Stoick’s war on dragons. There’s not much Junior Knows Best energy here, even if the young heroine winds up in some ways a bit ahead of the curve. The one moment of real parental disapproval has more to do with lying than disobedience or fraternizing with the wrong sort.

In fact, developing a parental theme that evolved in Coco, Encanto, and especially Turning Red, in which parent-child conflict is rooted in intergenerational trauma passed down from grandparents and great-grandparents, Elemental depicts the cycle being broken by the parent rather than the child. Ember’s father Bernie is haunted by the refusal of his own father back in Fireland to give his blessing when they left to come to Element City—and Bernie is determined not to do the same to Ember, to ensure that his daughter knows she has his blessing and support.

There are so many reasons to want to root for a movie like this. (The Father’s Day weekend opening highlights the attractiveness of a family film with a likable, supportive father figure.) Alas, it pains me to say it: While it’s an improvement on The Good Dinosaur (not to mention last year’s disappointing Lightyear), Elemental still isn’t very good. When a significant part of the conflict in a cartoon about talking elemental beings turns on urban infrastructure problems, building code violations, and city bureaucracy, something has gone off the rails. I won’t say it’s impossible to make a good animated movie in which urban infrastructure and bureaucracy play a role—but what’s the point of creating a world of beings made of fire and water and so forth for a story like that?

Elemental shares a fundamental conceptual problem with another recent Pixar movie, Onward: In both films the “what if?” conceit has no fundamental connection to the ideas and emotions driving the drama. That is, Onward is set in a Dungeons & Dragons fantasy world, and the main characters are a pair of brother elves—but while the movie has much to say about being brothers, it has nothing to say about being elves. There’s no reason for them to be elves; they just are. Contrast, for example, Inside Out, which, among other things, was about the discovery of the proper role of Sadness in the community of emotions. While Joy had long thought of Sadness as a useless, debilitating emotion, it turns out that Sadness plays an essential role in processing life experiences and moving forward.

From a design perspective, Elemental is certainly interested in the look of fire and water, and how to design an anthropomorphic elemental being: a living flame with arms, legs, and a face, or a walking water blob. The pitfalls of living cheek by jowl with other elements crop up: Splashing water is ubiquitous, and fire elementals casually, routinely wield umbrellas to prevent potentially fatal soakings (or, occasionally, lose a portion of their bodies to an unexpected dousing, easily regenerating afterward by eating a stick). It’s obviously intentional that Ember has a fiery temper while emotional Wade easily turns on the waterworks. But what has any of this to do with the immigration story or the opposites-attract love story? What does the movie really have to say about the interrelationship of fire, water, air, and earth?

“Elements don’t mix,” Ember tells Wade at one point. Would you believe that this movie depicts Earth elementals growing vegetation and plucking fruit, but never explores the role of water in that process? How exactly does earth grow plants if elements don’t mix? Did the filmmakers depicting Fire elementals eating those sticks to regenerate lost body parts never reflect that the existence of those sticks depends on all of the other elements? There’s even a scene highlighting the dependence of fire upon air—but this too is never connected to the theme of inter-elemental prejudice. At that point, you haven’t really thought the premise through. You’re pretty much telling a dated immigration story with a venerable moral of acceptance that happens to figure whimsical-looking characters.

A more deeply imagined Elemental world might have depicted Fire arriving in a forest community where Earth, Water and Air live in an explicitly developed symbiosis. In such a world (imagined, perhaps, in a Tolkienesque mythic mode), Fire might be seen as a dangerous, purely destructive interloper—underscored, say, by an out-of-control forest fire. Over time, though, it becomes clear that fire can play a beneficial role in the life of a forest. (I such it would be helpful to set the story, like Toy Story and Monsters, Inc., in an enchanted version of our world, with human beings, as opposed to a world unto itself, like Cars or Zootopia.)

Or perhaps the time has come for Pixar to move on from “What if X had feelings?” storytelling. I appreciate the autobiographical motifs in Elemental and other recent Pixar movies like Domee Shi’s Turning Red. Maybe it’s enough to tell such stories, like Turning Red, in ways that invite us to empathize with actual human beings, perhaps using fantasy elements to explore human emotions, rather than creating worlds of nonhuman characters whose nonhuman status doesn’t ultimately matter much.

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About Steven D. Greydanus 50 Articles
Steven D. Greydanus is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle, a permanent deacon in the Catholic Archdiocese of Newark, and the founder of He has degrees in media arts and religious studies. He and his wife Suzanne have seven children.


  1. You neglected to mention the “non-binary” character Disney has been touting, Wade’s younger sibling. This might be an innocuous, “blink and you’ll miss it” moment in the film, but in an era where we are being frog-marched into accepting great moral evils and scandal to children by government, education, major corporations, and the media, this becomes a huge thing to overlook. Parents need to know about these things.

    • To be clear, the moment isn’t in the film itself, but has been pushed by Disney in related media. Apologies if I misled.

  2. Years ago I read an account of a second grader’s book report on a book with the title “Trees.”
    His one sentence book report said, “This book told me more than I wanted to know about trees.”
    I am not sure why that popped into my head while reading this review.

  3. This kind of thing might be great if you are analyzing this for a cinema class. The average child is not looking for that. They are looking for entertainment, characters they can relate to and a good story. To this day my favorite Disney film is Cinderella. Good vs evil. Romance. Period. I go to the movies to be entertained. I do not want propaganda and hidden messages. I will not support such things financially. Disney has been a colossal disappointment to me the last few years. I LOVED everything about their product. No longer. The only way to turn the tide away from their woke wanderings is to hurt them financially. There are many movie companies and even many theme parks. You do have options. Dont buy their products.

    • LJ, I agree with everything you share in your comment. At the same time, I make an observation.

      As this film is intended to be entertainment that families can consume together (for the moment, set aside the question of whether a family SHOULD do so in this particular instance), parents are not only co-consumers with their children, but also leaders in their families who would do well to talk with their children, particularly if they’re a bit older, about some of the larger themes in the film, such as those Dcn. Greydanus raises in his article.

      A shared experience like this presents an opportunity to encourage dialog and critical thinking from our children. Dcn. Greydanus provides some excellent topics for discussion with our children that we can adapt to their particular maturity levels.

      Of course, this begs the question of whether parents should take their children to see this particular film…or even whether adults should see it themselves. My view is that this is a prudential judgment that the adults should make for themselves and their families, but if we decide to see it, we have an obligation to be critical consumers, and to use an opportunity like this to engage our children in important questions that will help them learn to ask questions of a culture that too often refuses to do so of itself.

    • Sunday nights Disney was one of the shows we watched in the 60’s and 70’s. We did not have supper on Sundays after a large post Mass early afternoon dinner but we did get popcorn balls.

      • I remember Walt Disney on Sunday evenings also. I haven’t seen many popcorn balls recently, but I remember those too.
        One of my Disney favorites from the 1960’s is” Pablo & the Dancing Chihuahua” which unlikely as it may seem was about an illegal immigrant & his dog. It’s available to watch on YouTube.

  4. Pixar’s been circling the drain for over a decade now. Their last masterpiece was “Inside Out,” which came out all the way back in 2015. But since then, the studio – and American animation in general – have been on their last legs. The CalArts style, which is ugly as sin, is the dominant aesthetic of the day. Contrast it with the lovely pseudo-anime style of the 2000s (“Avatar: The Last Airbender” and “Teen Titans”) or the Art Deco style of the 1990s (“Batman: The Animated Series” and “Batman Beyond”). There’s no comparison.

    These days, the best animation is coming from Japan. Or Wes Anderson.

    • Thanks for your comment, Ian. It is too true that Pixar’s best days are behind them, and that American and English-language animation generally is in a slump. What a magical time 2000–2010 was: not just Pixar, but DreamWorks, Blue Sky, Laika, and, in the UK and Ireland, Aardman and Cartoon Saloon. Cartoon Saloon is still doing phenomenal work, but they’re the only ones in that lineup.

      One major asterisk: Every time Phil Lord and Chris Miller take on a new property, not only is the movie really good (Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, The Lego Movie, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, The Mitchells vs. the Machines), they reinvent their style every time. It’s impossible to say what a Lord & Miller cartoon looks like, since (sequels aside) they have yet to repeat themselves. (The only constant in their work is freneticism, which may be a drawback for some.) And with Across the Spider-Verse they’ve produced a sequel that extends and transcends the already towering achievements of the first film. I’ve seen it twice now, and at times it’s heartstoppingly gorgeous.

      P.S. Pixar’s Soul may not be quite a masterpiece, but it’s close. Pete Docter is the only OG Pixar director who has yet to disappoint creatively.

  5. Walt’s creation has lost its way and that’s sad for one here who happily watched Disney during the ’50’s and ’60’s. Now, they’re just another political media company.

    • If Disney would change their present unfortunate direction and return to what Walt intended in the beginning, many who now shun them would return. I do not go to sports events or generally to the movies to see political commentaries, I go to watch the competition, for my team to win and for entertainment. Please keep politics and immorality out of it,

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