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Elemental flickers with moments echoing Pixar’s golden age, but one narrative switch would’ve made it better.

Ember’s Fireplace

Fire and Water
Fire and Water

It’s a good premise. Elemental is all about the elements: Earth, Wind, Fire and Water. Of course, they’re anthropomorphized to reflect the human condition. Being generous, this one’s like a mix between Pixar’s Inside Out and Disney’s Zootopia. But it’s not quite as smart or as effective as either of those.

There are a couple different themes running through Elemental and one is much stronger than the other.

The strongest element (pardon the word play, but Elemental’s humor is heavily dependent on word play and is overloaded with puns) revolves around a girl named Ember Lumen (Leah Lewis) and her parents’ shop in Element City. Ember and her family are part of the Fire element and their shop, of course, offers candles, fire sticks, incense, even hot and spicy delicacies for the tummy. Anything flammable is probably on a shelf somewhere.

And Mom offers matchmaking services in a back room. Okay. That’s a clever one. That one works. Each half of a couple lights separate incense sticks and Mom detects if the smells gel into true love.

The Lumen family story is interesting; her parents left Fireland (“Kiss me, I’m Firish!”), where they lost everything in a storm. Element City offered a chance to start over, but the move also required sacrificing everything, including separation from their extended family. Their story, at its core, is the American immigrant story.

It’s a powerful thread, given there’s a desire to have Ember take over the family business. But, talk about being a fire sign, she’s got quite a temper and her outbursts usually come with a steep price to fix all the damage.

The Crying Game

The problem is with the other thread. It’s a romance between Fire and Water.

Ember and Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie) don’t exactly “meet cute.” It involves her temper, some burst water pipes and Wade’s unlikely appearance on the scene as a city inspector. He’s ready to mete out 30 citations against the Lumen family business.

Without getting into all the Element City politics, there’s an unlikely attraction between the two. Do Fire and Water equate to chemistry? Well, that’s where standard logic needs to take a back seat in service to a Pixar story, which is something of a change of pace. Usually Pixar’s animated logic makes at least pretty good sense and doesn’t need to cave to reality.

The romance goes beyond Jets and Sharks or Capulets and Montagues. This is — yeah — much more elemental. Suffice it to say, the point of their romance is love has the potential to change chemistry.

Of course, Elemental is an artsy, figurative play on that idea, not a literal take on science. But, still, it’s not exactly Pixar’s high-water mark. But what is perhaps more meaningful is the message that people should embrace the light while it burns. That’s a decent takeaway.

Element City

A romance takes flight
A romance takes flight

As things start out, there’s hope the ol’ Pixar magic will reignite. The possibilities are there to touch on — in classic Pixar fashion — challenging topics like discrimination (“Elements don’t mix!”). There’s also an expectation of some sort of environmental message, but that doesn’t come to fruition, unless one tries to read the tea leaves in how Fire, Water and Air get significantly more screen time than Earth.

Unfortunately, the material doesn’t rise to a deeper level (funny how that works) and too much of the dialogue and sight gags revolve around puns and other plays on words. Treeyota. “Get off your lazy ash.” “We flame to please.” The Ripple family dabbling in painting (water colors, of course).

Surprisingly, two of the youngest members of the Ripple family are named Marco and Polo, but that’s one joke that doesn’t get the required repetition to land an easy laugh.

But, okay, the 10-year-old still kicking and screaming inside this writer appreciates the basketball-like sport within Elemental in which the Windbreakers take on the Cropdusters. It sounds innocent enough. Windbreakers are a popular fashion piece. But, props for this cheer from a vocal fan in the stands: “Break some wind!”

Oh, and during the game, yeah, the Water population does the wave. Get it? Good.

The screenwriters — John Hoberg, Kat Likkel and Brenda Hsueh — are all veteran writers with a history heavy on TV. They’re new to the Pixar fold and they certainly come out swinging for the fences with a high-concept romantic comedy mixed with an immigrant tale.

Bringing it all together is director Peter Sohn, who directed Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur but might be better appreciated as the inspiration for the appearance of Russell the scout in Up. More personally, though, is a bit of insight into Sohn’s own appreciation of the immigrant story, as the end credits feature a thank you note to his parents and all they sacrificed.

That’s really where the value in Elemental resides. The story of family sacrifice, not so the sacrifice will be repaid with more sacrifice, but so the next generation can move forward with a better life instead of staying put.