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Elemental Features Pixar's Most Inventive Worldbuilding Yet

When Guillermo del Toro accepted the Best Animated Feature award at this year's Oscars for his stunning stop-motion "Pinocchio," his speech resonated with cartoon fans worldwide. "Animation is cinema. Animation is not a genre," he declared, gold statue in hand to prove he knew what he was talking about. "Animation is ready to be taken to the next step. We are all ready for it. Keep animation in the conversation."

"Animation is not a genre" has long been a rallying cry for makers and enthusiasts of animation, pushing back against the public perception that cartoons are exclusively kids' stuff, with variety and potential more limited than live-action. The Oscar nominees this year showed that we might be moving in the right direction in changing that perception, with Del Toro's masterful "Pinocchio" beating out a diverse array of projects that were all excellent in their own right. There was the dazzling action and surprising poignancy of DreamWorks' "Puss in Boots: The Last Wish," the rousing adventure of Netflix's "The Sea Beast," the wistful melancholy of A24's "Marcel the Shell with Shoes On," and Pixar's uniquely lovely coming-of-age comedy "Turning Red."

Pixar, of course, has taken home its share of well-deserved awards over a few industry-redefining decades. And while the studio that built a legacy on a hopping lamp has become a massive standard-bearer within the Disney empire, the storytellers at Pixar still have a passion for what makes animation special as a medium, not a genre. As we saw firsthand during our recent visit to the studio, that passion is written all over the inventive world of their newest feature, "Elemental."

Element City is unlike anything we've seen before

One of the greatest (and most exciting) challenges of animation is that everything on the screen is some sort of illusion. Everyone and everything has to be fully invented by an artist in some way or another. Pixar has had experience in conjuring worlds inhabited by non-human characters, of course — they've brought us the uniquely scaled perspectives of toys and bugs, a bustling metropolis of monsters, even a reality where cars evolved to become the dominant species on Earth. But "Elemental" presented a whole new set of challenges with its setting — an environment for characters who themselves are, well, the environment.

Element City is home to beings of fire, water, air, and earth. Not people who live among those elements, but living embodiments of the elements themselves. As production designer Don Shank explained during a panel discussion at the studio, that distinction drove every decision in creating the city. "The world should be recognizable, but also something we've never seen before," Shank said, showing off some of the design team's explorations of a chair for fire — recognizable as a comfortable seat, but resembling a brick fireplace. Shank continued, "We discovered unique options by imagining how elemental characters would've naturally evolved, with the way that they build their world."

The characters of Elemental define the setting

The motivations of the "Elemental" design team were clear in the footage screened by the filmmakers during our visit, which particularly focused on the fire neighborhood of protagonist Ember Lumen (voiced by Leah Lewis) and her family. Brick, glass, and ceramics define the surroundings, and the question of how fire moves through life informs everything from architectural designs to cartoon gags like a fire mother feeding her baby lighter fluid.

We also got a look at a game of "airball," the sport of choice in Element City, in a sequence that serves as a moment of bonding between Ember and water element Wade Ripple (voiced by Mamoudou Athie). As cloud athletes soar over the crowd to score goals in flying baskets, water fans do the wave — literally. It's a culmination of the movie's worldbuilding, gathering together its imagined array of disparate cultures into a larger world that could only exist in animation.

Elemental is everything animation does best

A major reason that so many of us love animation as an art form is the idea of watching something created by artists as it comes to life. To look at living, breathing characters or vibrant worlds or abstract expressions of emotion and know that it's all pencils, puppets, or pixels is a certain kind of magic. And there's a particular joy in how animation can bring humanity to characters who aren't human — it's one of the things the medium does best.

"Elemental" is an exciting addition to the Pixar canon for that very reason. The studio's artists have used personal stories and technical innovations as the groundwork for their first real rom-com. It's a love story between fire and water, in a city invented from the ground up as an expression of the story's themes. In short, it's giving us something we've never seen before, and that's why animation isn't a genre — it's cinema.

"Elemental" arrives exclusively in theaters June 16.