Of all 2023’s surprise cinematic success stories — like Barbie out-grossing the mega-successful Avatar: The Way of Water to become the year’s biggest box-office hit to date, or Cocaine Bear doing better in American theaters than the $125 million Shazam sequel — nothing’s been quite as surprising as Pixar’s Elemental quietly bucking the odds to become a stealth hit. Initially and widely dismissed as a flop after a poor opening weekend, Pixar’s latest lingered in multiplexes for months while other movies rapidly came and went, often hitting digital release before the butter on moviegoers’ popcorn had cooled. It made more than $480 million in theaters, then debuted on Disney Plus with what Disney claims was a record-breaking premiere weekend.
I personally credit the hair.
I’m not being entirely facetious here. Elemental is an emotional fantasy about immigration and assimilation, inspired by the family of director Peter Sohn, but couched in metaphors about earth, air, water, and fire people all trying to live in the same city together. There are a lot of reasons it might have caught viewers’ imaginations enough that they turned it into a word-of-mouth hit, from the relatable protagonist (Ember, an ambitious but hot-tempered young fire woman trying to carry on her family’s legacy) to the unlikely love story.
But it’s also a deeply flawed movie. Elemental is built around an improbable, impersonal conflict involving municipal bureaucracy, which distracts from the far more personal struggles and leaves them fighting for narrative space. The middle section sags, as Ember chases weepy, weird water person Wade around their city, trying to appeal a report he filed to the city about a plumbing violation at her father’s store. The basic story setup raises endless confusing questions if you allow yourself to think about it at all. And Wade is a real oddity as a romantic lead. Entirely appropriately for a water person, he’s mercurial, inconsistent, and kind of a drip.
But c’mon, look at his hair.
Like so many Pixar movies — including Sohn’s previous directorial project, The Good Dinosaur — Elemental is a visual spectacle that lives both in its big animation showcases and in its tiny animation details. On the smallest scale, there’s always something thought-through and cleverly realized happening on screen.
Some of it’s in the small background elements, like the posters for Ember’s ancestral home country, Fireland, on the walls of her parents’ shop, or their magazine rack, which reads “Magma-zines.” Some of it is in aspects of the characters themselves. Study any given character in Elemental, and you’ll catch amazing little subtleties, like the way the fire people have clothing woven from fireproof materials like metal and glass. (One cantankerous shop customer is wearing what appears to be a knitted cap, but on close inspection, it’s made of chainmail links.)
Personally, I couldn’t get enough of the water people’s hair, and the way it’s constantly in motion. Early in the film, when I was struggling to connect with Wade through his cartoonish, abrupt disintegrations into rivers of tears, or his inability to listen to anyone or hold still for five seconds, I was still taken by the visual of his hair, and how it stays in constant flowing motion.
It’s a wonder of perpetual watery churn, with shifting bubbles giving it texture as it turns a kind of mussed comb-over into an endlessly cycling backward waterfall. It’s relaxing, oddly enough for such a manic movie, the way a tabletop fountain is relaxing. It may be the only comforting thing about Wade, who alternates between hapless and kinda pushy, in the familiar way of so many rom-com dudes who favor big romantic gestures.
The ridiculous appeal of Wade’s hair extends to all the other water people as well. Later in the film, Ember visits Wade’s high-rise apartment, guarded by a doorman whose walrus mustache looks like a crashing waterfall that cascades into perpetual foam at the bottom. She also meets Wade’s family, all of whom have their own similarly surging, plunging hair, with different textures depending on how actively the water moves and how much froth and spume it contains.
The family’s conversation is more than a little silly, packed with water puns and a “Let’s make each other cry!” game that’s downright weird, even though it comes to a touching end. (Is crying a weight-loss tactic for people made out of water? Why do they love it so much?) But the thoughtfulness and attention that went into the character design is compelling, no matter what they’re saying or doing.
There’s plenty of large-scale spectacle to stare at in Elemental as well. Sohn takes time away from the story’s forward momentum to let viewers just sit back and revel in all the wonder of this world, in scenes like Ember’s fireworks-backed bike ride early in the film, or her melancholy walk under the curtains of reflective water sheeting off the train tracks near her home. Her gloriously colorful trip underwater with Wade to see a rare flower is as much the heart of the movie as anything involving her family and her frustrations. And while the movie lurches in a few too many narrative directions to have the full, cohesive impact of the best Pixar movies, like Inside Out or The Incredibles, its eventual emotional payoffs do pack a punch.
But for me, at least, Elemental’s full emotional appeal doesn’t land until very late in the movie, once the threads fully come together. It takes a while, amid the bureaucratic plot, the backstory, and the worldbuilding, to make it clear that this movie’s most important questions are richer than “Can fire and water kiss?” or “Will Ember’s father ever say he’s proud of her?” Eventually, the reasons behind Ember’s volatile temper become clear, and the whole movie comes into focus more clearly. But until Elemental finally reveals its true scope, it’s worth watching for its big, splashy moments — and more significantly, its tiny, splashy hairdos.
Elemental is streaming on Disney Plus now.