Pixar generally builds its movies around things kids love – toys, bugs, fish, etc. Elemental is a little different. Children don’t necessarily love dirt and fire as much as they do monsters and cars. That may make their new entry seem less vital than the others. While it’s true this isn’t top-tier Pixar, it’s still high-quality family entertainment from a company with an astonishing track record.

The story is set in Element City, a place where beings made of air, water, fire, and dirt live in their own respective neighborhoods, crossing paths primarily when out in public. Ember (Leah Lewis) is a fire-girl being prepped to take over her father’s store. She first needs to reign in her appropriately fiery temper, which often causes her to blow up at customers. One of her outbursts shakes some pipes loose, causing a water-boy named Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie) to get sucked into them and subsequently spit out into the store’s basement. He and Ember are attracted to each other, but of course fire and water do not mix well.

They attempt to deny romantic feelings while simultaneously trying to figure out why the city’s levee is leaking. If the problem can be fixed fast enough, cloud-lady city supervisor Gale (Wendi McLendon-Covey) will rescind her order to close down Ember’s dad’s shop. And if he finds out his daughter is hanging out with a water-guy, all hell will break loose.

Okay, two characters trying to track down the source of a leak isn’t the most exciting plot in the world. Lack of a bigger hook is the single downside of Elemental. You don’t get the rescue mission thrills of Toy Story, the emotion-based drama of Inside Out, or the social satire of Wall-E. The best part of the story is the romance, as Ember and Wade lament the way their elemental natures seemingly preclude them from being together.

Where the movie excels is in its characters and visuals. Having the four classes of citizens interact allows for moments of great comedy. Lots of witty element-related jokes are packed into the screenplay, too. (A cloud basketball team is called the Wind Breakers.) Ember’s parents, Bernie (Ronnie Del Carmen) and Cinder (Shila Ommi), meanwhile, are clearly designed to remind viewers of immigrants to America. The film touches on poignant themes about heritage, pride, and how people of one ethnicity can sometimes be critical of people of another ethnicity.

As for the visuals, they’re spectacular, especially in the 3D format. Element City is beautifully conceived, as is a marvelous scene involving blooming flowers. Because the world is so inviting to behold, looking past the uninspired plot becomes easier. Elemental’s likable protagonists, hilarious jokes, and stunning animation make the movie enjoyable for all ages.

Note: An 8-minute Up-inspired mini-movie called Carl’s Date runs before the main feature. It, too, is charming.

out of four

Elemental is rated PG for some peril, thematic elements, and brief language. The running time is 1 hour and 43 minutes.