Pixar’s ‘Elemental’ won’t set the world on fire, but it holds water

This image released by Disney/Pixar Studios shows Ember, voiced by Leah Lewis, in a scene from the animated film "Elemental." (Disney/Pixar via AP)
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AP Film Writer

Pixar’s “Elemental” conjures a diverse metropolis where the elements — fire, water, earth and air — live like ethnicities mostly ghettoized from one other. For fire and water, especially, mingling can be combustible. A bad splash could consume fire; a strong flame could evaporate water. This is the rare kids’ movie where subway rides are actually more fraught with danger than in the real world.

“Elemental” is the 27th Pixar feature and the second from longtime studio veteran Peter Sohn (“The Good Dinosaur”). But in many ways, it feels like a spiritual sequel to the Disney Animation release “Zootopia,” a likewise gleaming urban tower of anthropomorphized racial metaphors with occasional interactions with municipal bureaucracy.

In “Elemental,” Ember Lumen (voiced by Leah Lewis) is the daughter of immigrants from Fireland: Ernie (Ronnie Del Carmen) and Cinder (Shila Omni), both of whom were handed English names while passing through an Ellis Island-like customs entry.

Like countless real-life immigrants before them, Ernie and Cinder have scraped together a thriving life and business, a bodega of literally hot foods that Ember is expected to inherit. Her temper is a problem. Ember, a red-haired flame capable of going “full purple,” can resemble Lewis Black’s Anger of “Inside Out.” But her more pressing issue is a basement leak out of which flows Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie), a water person and building inspector who immediately spots a few dozen code violations that would shut the place down.

“Elemental” may not be anywhere near top-tier Pixar, but, with water and fire hazards everywhere, it’s certainly an insurance man’s dream.

So where does it slide into the Pixar canon? Probably in the lower half. But “Elemental” — sincere and clever, with a splash of dazzle — comes closer to rekindling some of the old Pixar magic than some recent entries.

Yet the marriage of elemental high concept with a classical immigrant tale never quite achieves alchemy. Aside from a beautiful elevated subway that splashes water below whenever a train glides through, Element City doesn’t come across a fully fleshed-out world. Despite basing the movie in the building blocks of life, there’s little feel for the natural world.

Opening on the heels of raging wildfires, “Elemental” manages to be a movie about fire and water without even a passing reference to today’s climate realities. Missed opportunities abound. Earth and air are relegated to bit players. Not a soul sings “The Eternal Flame.” Earth Wind and Fire go cameo-less.

But if the comic potential of “Elemental” goes untapped, its central story is more convincing and tenderly drawn. Ember, who travels the city with a stylish cloak to keep from igniting things in her path, is one of Pixar’s strongest protagonists. The sacrifice and burden of being a first-generation immigrant daughter is movingly rendered in her.

“Elemental’s” strongest scenes are with Ember and her father as they navigate a familiar crossroads. As responsible as Ember feels to her family, she’s pulled in another direction. Her real talent is glassmaking, which she can exquisitely do in a moment, with a few quick puffs. She’d be a runaway champ on “Blown Away.”

Ember, I think, would have been enough to build a movie around. But that’s not “Elemental,” my dear. Instead, Sohn’s film, scripted by John Hoberg, Kat Likkel and Brenda Hsueh, is too much given over to a “West Side Story”-esque romance between her and Wade as they rush around an Element City that, like “Chinatown,” has a water problem.

As they hurry to plug a mysterious leak, Wade is soon carrying a torch for Ember. The puns fly. “You’re so hot,” he says. “Excuse me?” she replies. “No,” he strutters. “Like smoking.”

It’s a seemingly impossible love story; they fear even touching each other. And they come from much different worlds. Wade, who sort of resembles a watery Colin Jost, lives with his family in a doorman building. But as a match for Ember, he’s a bit of a drip. He gushes tears at the mere mention of butterflies and speaks wide-eyed about “embracing the light.” “Elemental” begins to push against a here-to-unknown threshold: There may be only so far you can take a romance when your leading man is a translucent blob named Wade.

An extra word, though, on the short that precedes “Elemental.” “Carl’s Date” picks back up with Carl Fredricksen and the squirrel-chasing Doug. Here, Carl nervously prepares for his first date since the death of his beloved Ellie. Doug’s advice: “Bring a toy.” It’s both a fitting companion to “Elemental” (the boy from “Up,” Russell, was loosely inspired by Sohn) and poignant swan song for Ed Asner, who recorded his dialogue prior to his death in 2021.