Pixar's Elemental Footage Reaction: A Charming Romantic Comedy Simmers In A Mesmerizing World

This summer, Pixar's new film "Elemental" (watch the new trailer here) will be the animation studio's first original film to get a wide theatrical release since "Onward" hit the big screen just before the coronavirus pandemic swept the globe. "Lightyear" was given a theatrical release last year, but it wasn't exactly a sensation, so we're overdue for some real Pixar magic. 

Thankfully, after Disney and Pixar invited /Film and other members of the media to screen roughly 30 minutes of footage from "Elemental" during an early press event, I can tell you that this is a return to form for the animation studio. With the exception of "WALL-E," this feels like Pixar's first proper romantic comedy, giving us a charming meet-cute between a fire woman named Ember Lumen (Leah Lewis of "The Half of It") and a water man named Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie of "Jurassic World Dominion"). Their relationship blossoms in the bustling metropolis of Element City, where people made of water, earth, air, and fire (mostly) co-exist in a world shaped by their elemental nature.

This is the first time in a while that it feels like Pixar is relying more on the originality of their storytelling and world-building rather than letting an all-star voice cast drive audience interest. Neither Lewis nor Athie are household names, but their casting could not be more perfect, with each capturing the essence of their characters and sparking a wonderful chemistry as the leads. The enchanting, blossoming relationship between Ember and Wade is set amidst an immigrant family's struggle to fit in a world that doesn't really cater to them. Combine that with the world of Element City, bursting with creativity, and Pixar seems to have a promising romance on its hands. 

What's the story?

When director Pete Sohn (who inherited "The Good Dinosaur" from "Up" director Bob Peterson after creative differences overwhelmed the production) first pitched the concept for "Elemental" to Disney, it was based on the idea of whether or not fire and water could ever connect. Is that even possible? That turned into the film we're about to see this summer. 

"Elemental" focuses on Ember and the rest of the Lumen family as they make a life for themselves in Element City, a proxy of New York City where the metropolis has mostly been built around water people. As the film briefly explains, water was the first element to evolve into a civilization, followed by earth, air, and eventually fire, but the latter's destructive nature has resulted in many fire people feeling out of place and even unwanted. That's exactly what happens when Ember's parents arrived in Element City. With their fire language feeling a little overwhelming at the immigration entrance, they're given the names of Bernie and Cinder, and off they go to find a place to live. 

The Lumen family gets a familiar immigrant experience, with a little bit of xenophobia thrown in there. As they try to find a place to live, an earth person with dry leaves isn't keen to rent to them. Meanwhile, a water person merely frowns and closes the door in their face, clearly having an aversion to fire people. The parallels and thematic elements involving racism are not subtle, but that's exactly the point. Though the eventual romance between Ember and Wade takes the spotlight, there's a backdrop here focusing on the issues of human hegemony, being an immigrant family trying to get by, and overcoming what might feel like a natural predilection towards communities that, initially, may seem diametrically opposed to your own. 

The Lumen family lays their roots in a seemingly abandoned, rundown building on the outskirts of Element City. Bernie repairs the building himself and opens a convenience store that caters to fire people. Slowly, a community builds around them, resulting in Firetown. What's great about this setting is that it could stand in for a myriad of ethnicities. The fire people are not meant to be representative of any singular race. In fact, none of the elemental societies are made to be direct proxies for specific ethnic backgrounds. Sure, an argument could be made for water people being the white majority since Element City is mostly catered to them, but that's probably why Mamoudou Athie was cast as Wade, to break down any of those assumptions. But there are hints of Middle Eastern, Polish, Greek, Jewish, Asian, and Irish culture built into these characters, and that's just in the footage that was shown to us. 

As Ember enters her adult years and her father Bernie is getting older, she begins to take over the store. But Ember hasn't yet learned how to control her fiery temper. Whenever customers become overwhelming, she gets white hot and essentially has a mini-meltdown that results in a literally explosive fit. On the day of the busy red dot sale, too many customers begin to push Ember to the edge, and she runs down to the basement for a private burst of anger. But when her rage results in a broken water pipe flooding the basement, she accidentally summons an emotional Wade, who just so happens to be a safety inspector who works for the city. Unfortunately, he's now witness to a variety of violations, and because he's dedicated to his job, he's regretful that he has to inform his boss of them, which may result in the store being closed. 

From here, Ember begins to spend a significant amount of time with Wade as she tries to figure out a way to stop the city from shutting down her family's store. Though initially frustrated with Wade, she begins to see a new side of water people, resulting in a simmering romance that lands somewhere among the likes of "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," "Moonstruck," "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," "You've Got Mail," and more recently, "The Big Sick." Of course, that will likely be made all the more complicated by the fact that Ember's grandmother's dying wish was for her to marry another fire person. In fact, those were her final words just before her flame was extinguished, a detail that apparently comes from Pete Sohn's real life. 

The world-building is top notch

Pixar's "Elemental" takes an approach to world-building that feels akin to Disney's "Zootopia." They've really taken the time to flesh out this original universe and make it feel lived in. What would a world look like if it were centered around people made of water, earth, air, and fire? There are creative, amusing, stylish, and just plain cool details in Element City that are simply awe-inspiring. 

There are high-rise apartment buildings that resemble Galileo thermometers — you know, those little glass tubes with floating glass bubbles inside them. Inside water residences have inflatable furniture, and the floors are flooded with water acting as their carpet. The air people, who are big puffy clouds, commute to and from the city in blimps that their bodies make float. The earth people's style is defined by various shrubberies, grass, leaves, soil, and all sorts of plant aesthetics, from grass mustaches to  The buildings of Firetown resemble familiar Brownstones, but with touches that make them look like various, giant clay stoves. The city looks futuristic but also natural, with plenty of vibrant colors to go around. 

There's also the massive Cyclone Stadium where games of Air-Ball are played, a sport which Peter Sohn describes as a mix of skydiving and basketball, so of course it's played by the air people. And there are clever little touchstones like the crowd doing the wave, which takes on a literal depiction as the water people turn into a wave that swirls around the arena. This particular sequence that was shown to us was rather impressive, especially with all the crowd details in play at the same time. 

There are also plenty of little touches that enhance the world. Since the story is mostly focused on Ember, many of those details come from Firetown, where Ember cruises around on a propane tank moped that is powered by her fire body. But you'll notice details like the store accepting payment from Magma Card, selling medicine like Methanol fever enhancers, using cleaning products like Wick-ex, and snacking on things like Fire Crackers, Twig candy bars, Smoke Puffs cereal, and of course, Wood Chips. In fact, whenever a fire person ends up getting splashed by water and part of their flame is extinguished, they merely need to snack on some wood to get back to full flame. 

There are endless flourishes that make Element City a fascinating location to watch this story unfold, and the elemental characters only make it better. In fact, their mere presence is mesmerizing thanks to some technically impressive animation.

Unbelievable animation

One of the most incredible pieces of "Elemental" is Pixar's animation. With characters made of water, earth, air, and fire, this may be Pixar's most technically challenging movie yet. With Ember and Wade serving as our leads, we have two main characters whose body is always in motion, and not just in the traditional way. Ember's flames are constantly waving around, and the entire structure of her body is fire. Occasionally her movements will be so fast that parts of her body wisp in the wind. Her emotions are displayed not just by her face, but by the intensity with which her fire burns. Even Ember's pupils wave slightly like fire. Just watching Ember is captivating, and Wade is no different.

Water has notoriously been one of the most difficult elements to recreate in animation and visual effects, and even with today's technological advances, it's still not easy. Director Peter Sohn confirmed that everyone thought creating a character made of fire was going to be their most difficult challenge. But Wade turned out to be more difficult. It's not just the liquid nature of water that made his character creation difficult, but the fact that water is both reflective and refractive, as well as containing ripples and bubbles. So animators had to be specific about how realistic to make the water, not to mention making Wade look transparent without being able to see the interiors of his eyes and mouth. Wade's liquid body also allows for blink-and-you'll-miss-it moments of physical comedy, such as his head detaching from his body when quickly trying to maneuver away from Ember's angry advances in one scene. 

Together, the two show off their elemental skills in a cute scene that finds Ember and Wade walking through Element City's version of Central Park. When they come upon a collection of colored minerals and crystals near a lake, Ember's flame changes color when she comes into contact with them. She burns from green to pink to red, impressing Wade with her beauty. Wade can't help but show off his skills either, as he streaks across the lake, creating a huge splash of water that results in a misty rainbow appearing over the park. This is exactly the kind of stuff that will have you falling in love with Ember and Wade as if they were Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. 

That's just the animation utilized to bring the main characters to life, and there are infinitely more details just like this that make "Elemental" a dazzling animated experience based on the footage we've seen so far.

Superb characters

Of course, if you don't care about the characters at the center of your story, then you have nothing. "Elemental" features a wonderful ensemble of characters who will remind people of their own families. Pixar has confirmed the voice cast includes Ronnie del Carmen as Ember's soon-to-be-retired dad, Bernie, Shila Ommi as Ember's love-seeking mom Cinder, Wendi McLendon-Covey as Wade's stormy and Air-Ball-loving boss Gale, Catherine O'Hara as Wade's welcoming mom Brook, Mason Wertheimer as Ember's young, admiring earth neighbor, Clod, and Joe Pera as an overgrown city bureaucrat named Fern.

Bernie and Cinder are loving immigrant parents who only want the best for Ember. Wade's family is on the lively and emotional side, with both Wade and his mother pouring out tears at the drop of the slightest bit of sadness or happiness. Gale is a true force of nature who is the definition of a hyped sports fan. And Clod is an adorable little rascal. But it's Ember and Wade who lead the way as characters who are flawed in their own way and have something to learn from each other. The romance brewing between them is just plain charming, and it's clear they have a lot to learn from each other. 

After this sneak preview of "Elemental," I can't wait to see what the rest of the story offers. This is one of Pixar's most promising movies in years, and it'll be great to watch it unfold in theaters. 

"Elemental" arrives in theaters on June 16, 2023.