Love fuels the talking flame in Disney’s beautiful, engaging ‘Elemental’

Animated story of earth, wind, fire and water isn’t top-tier Pixar, but its screen-popping visuals carry the day.

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Being made of fire, Ember (left, voice of Leah Lewis) is supposed to avoid her watery counterpart Wade (Mamoudou Athie) but can’t help liking him in “Elemental.”

Disney/Pixar

Pixar has been releasing animated films for so long now that the 7- and 8-year-olds who delighted in “Toy Story” and “A Bug’s Life” back in the day are now old enough to be taking little ones of their own to films such as “Soul” and “Luca” and now “Elemental,” a strikingly beautiful and wondrous adventure that isn’t top-tier Pixar but contains more than enough elements, if you will, to carry the day.

Those mid-1990s films were visually impressive, but they’re starting to look like old-timey drawings compared to the candy-colored, screen-popping, insanely detailed and incredibly fluid look of recent animated Pixar gems such as “Elemental,” which will hold your attention even when the relatively simple story arc stalls from time to time. With the obligatory positive messaging about following your dreams and not letting others dictate your path, and how even drastically different cultures actually have a lot more in common than meets the eye, “Elemental” is sweet-natured, engaging, silly and heart-tugging. It’s solid summertime entertainment for, yes, the whole family.

Our story takes place in Element City, a wholly original and stand-alone world that is also clearly a metaphor for New York and these United States. Element City is populated by four distinct groups: anthropomorphic representations of Earth, Wind, Fire (“that’s the way of the world,” sorry!) and Water. In search of a better life, the immigrant flame couple Bernie Lumen (Ronnie Del Carmen) and his wife Cinder (Shila Omni) and their baby daughter arrive fresh off the boat and set up home in the working-class neighborhood of Fire Town. (Water, Air and Earth interact and co-exist on a daily basis, but the “Firish” being, well, Fire, those folks are pretty much expected to keep to themselves.)

‘Elemental’

Untitled

Disney and Pixar present a film directed by Peter Sohn and written by John Hoberg, Kat Likkel and Brenda Hsueh. Rated PG (for some peril, thematic elements and brief language). Running time: 110 minutes. Opens Thursday at local theaters.

Bernie and Cinder speak in a dialect that seems to combine elements (so to speak) of a number of languages. As first-generation immigrants considered dangerous by the other elements, they’re a hardworking, intelligent, life-loving group — but they have an awareness that Fire people are expected to keep to themselves and stay among their own kind, far from the upscale, Water-powered and -controlled city center.

Flash-forward a number of years, where Bernie and Cinder are operating a popular general store called Fireplace, while their daughter Ember (Leah Lewis) has grown up to be a strong, independent, good-hearted young woman who also has quite the temper problem, to the point where she can be dangerous when she gets all purple with rage. (The relationship between Ember, who is modern and speaks “American,” if you will, and her immigrant parents, who speak in broken English and don’t always understand Ember’s ambitions, speaks to the bonds and the chasms between first- and second-generation immigrant families.)

When a water main leak floods the store’s basement and threatens to turn into something worse, we’re introduced to one Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie), a Will Ferrell-esque Water element with a slightly pear-shaped, blue body. an upbeat personality, a huge heart — and a tendency to literally let the waterworks fly whenever he’s overcome with emotion, which is pretty much all the time.

After initially clashing, Ember and Wade become fast friends, teaming up to try to save the Fireplace from being shut down and later to try to save all of Element City from a disastrous flood. We get some brief interludes involving a Quidditch-type game involving the cloud-like Air elements, and some comedic relief provided by the talking-tree Earth elements, but those two groups are mostly on the sidelines as the story focuses on Fire and Water.

Ember meets Wade’s extended and quite well-to-do family. (Catherine O’Hara is a standout voicing Wade’s well-meaning but overbearing mother, Brook.) The corny puns abound — e.g., there are two Water kids who are difficult to locate, and their names of course are Marco and Polo — as Ember and Wade begin to consider the crazy possibility of actually being together, even though actual physical contact would seem to result in either Wade dousing Ember’s flame or Ember boiling Wade to the point where he’d evaporate. (Being a family-friendly animated film, “Elemental” doesn’t venture into questions such as how do two Fire elements create an infant Fire element, or how are the Earth elements cool with the Fire community snacking on “Hot Logs,” which are basically Earth limbs, right?)

“Elemental” features standard-issue plot clashes and resolutions, but the visuals always sparkle, as director Peter Sohn and the requisite army of animated artists have great fun illustrating how light plays off the various element characters, whose very bodies are rippling with flames or swirling like reflecting pools. Wade can walk through gates or turn into droplets that reassemble, as if he’s an affable version of the shape-shifting T-1000 from “Terminator 2,” while Ember can create things of beauty and tools of great use via the magic of tempered glass. There are so many different blues and oranges in “Elemental” that it feels as if new shades were invented just for this movie. It’s not the best Pixar movie you’ll ever see, but it’s one of the best-looking.

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