There was a time when a new Pixar was guaranteed to be a good thing. But, as with anyone in the creative arts, perfection doesn't always strike and now it's a case of – it'll look great even if the story doesn't quite click.
We're introduced to the beautifully realised world of Element City, where the water, wind and earth people live in harmony, and just outside is the small suburb where the fire people have set up their life. Ember Lumen (Leah Lewis) works to take over her father's bodega and uphold family traditions but her rage is getting in her way. One day a water pipe bursts in her basement and she meets Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie) who strikes a deal with her not to close her shop in exchange for helping figure out a mysterious flooding issue – romancing appears to blossom.
Director Peter Sohn, having previously helmed the expansive but empty The Good Dinosaur, appears to have a personal story to tell. It's not surprise to learn he was an animator on Osmosis Jones either as Wade looks exactly like the 2D animator hero from twenty years previous.
Despite the efforts of the animators to render a realistic world, the design of the fire people is so stylised it doesn't entirely work. They're too stylish for the photo real world they inhabit which at times appears to have just added these characters into actual locations. If the entire film had been stylised it might have worked better but the two never mesh.
It also doesn't help that Sohn is clearly trying to tell a story about race and interracial relationships but never digs under the surface. The fire people appear to be stand-ins for immigrants, they have their own Little Fireland where the community comes together but the big city isn't build with them in mind and certain scenes call to mind overt racism but nothing fully explores it.
Unlike, say, Zootopia which used the buddy-cop sub-genre and anthropomorphic animals to explore racial prejudice in a way that family audiences could understand, this film never fully commits. Certain moments work really well. Wade suggesting Ember's father Bernie tone down the heat of his food for non-fire people, Wade's uncle suggesting Ember speaks remarkable English only for her to remark it's her only language, but this all feels like a first draft.
Instead of Guess Who's Flo0ding to Dinner, this fails to full embrace it's ideas. That's not to say the romance at it's heart isn't enjoyable. The hot headed Ember and the emotional Wade are likeable leads and it does help that they're voiced very well but it becomes far from a classic. The animation is perfect, but the script is weak, and for a film like this the writing really needed to be much much sharper. It's all a bit damp.
Elemental releases in UK cinemas July 7th.