Director: Peter Sohn Screenwriter: John Hoberg, Kat Likkel, Brenda Hsueh Cast: Leah Lewis, Mamoudou Athie, Ronnie del Carmen, Shila Ommi, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Catherine O'Hara, Mason Wertheimer, Joe Pera, Matt Yang King Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 109 min. MPAA: PG

Pixar is usually at its best when its animated films can do one of two things. They either create a world we’ve never seen before with a heavy dose of creativity to bring it together or present a story typically not associated with average animated family films. Elemental does both by creating a dazzling world of colorful elemental figures and presenting a tale of romantic drama. No, not a romantic comedy but a romantic drama. It all combines to make for something far more than a different flavor of Zootopia.

It helps that the film never slows down to explain the history and culture of this multi-element society. We’re thrown right into the story of a family of flame-based beings named Bernie and Cinder Lumen arriving in Element City. As immigrants who are not as appreciated in a city with elemental characters of water, clouds, and plants, they do their best to raise their daughter Ember (Leah Lewis). Hoping to do right by her dad and culture, Ember prepares to man her dad’s shop when he grows too old to crush wood into the shop’s clever treats.

Ember’s fury attracts the attention of Wade (Mamoudou Athie), a water elemental who serves as a city inspector. While Ember is a bright flame struggling to conceal her stress, Wade lets his emotions flood all over the place (literally). Together, they uncover a problem with plumbing that could flood parts of Element City. They charge their way through the city’s bureaucratic red tape while using their powers to create temporary solutions. Thankfully, the film’s plot doesn’t build towards some governmental conspiracy but instead shifts its focus to legacy and acceptance.

This film is simultaneously clever to watch in how it mixes elements and stages a meaningful relationship between Ember and Wade. Everything from Bernie’s fire-centric shop of glass-blown cake pops to Wade’s family home, which is essentially one big pool, are marvelous places to visit. The tension between the elements is so obvious the film doesn’t linger too long on establishing the racial overtones. There is cause for concern that a water person could extinguish a fire person or that a fire person could burn a plant to a crisp. And yet this society found a way to make it work that it’s enough to make you want to root for Ember and Wade to finally hold hands and make their relationship literally steamy. There’s also a profoundly moving climax that works hard for the tears, as with the best of Pixar movies.

There’s a breath of fresh air to how this film proceeds more smoothly than chaotically. True, there is an obligatory chase through the streets in the first act and a dangerous event in the climax to sell the seriousness of the situation. But for the most part, this film takes its time to linger on the wondrous elements that are worth stopping the plot to appreciate. Little moments of Ember creating smoke drawings for pedestrians or Wade guiding Ember on an underwater tour in a giant bubble are mesmerizing moments. In addition to the animation staff doing a fantastic job, the soundtrack by Thomas Newman also sets the right mood.

Of course, a Pixar film such as this is not devoid of comedy and there’s enough to exploit from this concept. Comedic backup comes from the eccentric sports fan cloud voiced by Wendi McLendon-Covey and charmingly dry wit from Joe Pera, voicing a dead-pan plant bureaucrat of city hall. Catherine O’Hara is also a lot of fun as Wade’s eccentric mother, who can go from being a sobbing mess of a lady who wears her emotions on her wet sleeves to an inviting host who treats Ember with the warmest of respects. World-building elements are fantastically absurd, where zeppelins only stay afloat by the cloud passengers on board and trains zip by creating tidal waves in their wake. There’s some great thought put into a film where characters made of fire and water question the point of having chainlink fences in the city if they couldn’t keep people like them out.

The romance and wonder of Elemental combine to form a robust mixture of a dazzlingly atmospheric Pixar picture, sure to age like a fine wine. My biggest criticism is that the film sometimes gets a little too busy. There are moments when I wish it would slow down a bit to appreciate more of its splendor. Thankfully, the pacing proceeds toward the juicier moments of Ember’s frustrations with living up to expectations and Wade’s core belief of embracing tears healthily. It’s a good-looking animated film with the brains to be more than a distraction, making this world a pleasure to get lost in its swirl of sweetness and honesty.

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