Elemental

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Elemental/Photo courtesy of Disney Israel and Forum Films

Lively fun animation; an imaginative metaphor; a moving depiction of immigration and first-generation issues; and romance – Pixar’s Elemental is overflowing with ideas and aims. Directed by Peter Sohn, with a screenplay by John Hobert, Kat Likkel, and Brenda Hsueh, I can imagine some exciting brainstorming sessions over this one. The film is so much fun to watch, visually appealing and full of humor, yet perhaps in trying to do so much, does not achieve the depth to which it aspires.

The world-building is very intriguing, with the four elements – fire, water, earth, and air – representing the different inhabitants of Element City. The opening montage features a worried fire couple coming by boat to the grand metropolis that is Element City. Upon their arrival, a bureaucrat finds their foreign names too difficult to pronounce, and reminiscent of the reception received by many immigrants at Ellis Island, decides to change their names to Bernie (Ronnie del Carmen) and Cinder (Shila Ommi). No one will rent to them, but they manage to find a run-down place to buy, where they live and work, running a store – The Fireplace. Their daughter Ember (Leah Lewis) grows up working in the store alongside her parents. Although she works hard and is dedicated to the family business, there is just one problem – Ember is given to outbursts of temper, her flames rising from yellow, orange, and red to an explosive purple.

So much is wonderful about this premise, its visual representation, and characters. The fire people, especially Ember, are thrilling to watch, their bodies made of moving flames. The relationship between Ember and her parents, and the tension between the different groups in Element City feel very grounded in the experience of immigrants. What doesn’t work as well is the development of the four elements as a metaphor for issues of prejudice and discrimination. The prevailing understanding in Element City is that “elements don’t mix.” There appears to be a hierarchy between the four elements, with water at the top of the scale, and fire, representing perhaps the most recent wave of immigration, at the bottom. It works as a metaphor for cultural and ethnic discrimination and prejudice except for one catch. The salient issue regarding discrimination is that all people deserve equal rights and freedoms regardless of differences of ethnicity, language, skin color or beliefs. But when it comes to the relationship between fire and the other three elements, there is a real danger that cannot be ignored and is not sufficiently or consistently addressed within the film. It is dealt with to some extent, with Ember wearing what appears to be a lovely fireproof garment when she leaves the Firetown neighborhood to go into the city. Or when she stands close to a water person, their insides bubble up, as if boiling, reflecting the real-world interaction of fire and water. Yet I felt that there were inconsistencies, as when Ember visits the home of water person Wade (Mamoudou Athie), she can’t step onto the watery floor for fear of being extinguished, but then sits at the table with the family on what appears to be an inflatable plastic floating chair, and I wondered – is it fireproof?

Elemental/Photo courtesy of Disney Israel and Forum Film

Elemental is so densely packed with action and images that it is easy and pleasurable to ignore these kinds of questions and be swept away by the fast-paced flow and Thomas Newman’s wonderful soundtrack. Ember’s temper ends up causing a pipe to burst, flooding the shop’s basement and ushering in Wade, a city inspector, who soon realizes that nothing in the building is up to code. Although initially in conflict, Wade’s soft heart is touched by Ember’s devotion to her father and the shop, and the two set off together. There are some dazzling scenes as the friendship develops between these two, as they learn to appreciate their different abilities and qualities. The scene where Ember visits Wade’s home is hilarious, and there’s an exciting game of airball. The details and individual scenes are a delight. The trajectory of Ember’s relationship with her parents, and particularly with her father, is very moving and reflects the experiences of first-generation Americans in terms of the sense of parental expectations and feelings of responsibility towards the family.

Although the relationship between Ember and Wade is fun to follow, I wasn’t thrilled with the way the film depicts romance. As Ember struggles with her temper and tries so hard to be the daughter she thinks her father expects, she emerges as such a bright, strong, character and I felt it detracts from the film to have her journey towards self-understanding so dependent on Wade. Wade himself is a wonderful character, for the most part bursting the male stereotype bubble with his sweetness, sensitivity, and copious weeping. Still, as sweet as it is that he sees Ember, understands her dilemma and potential, it would be a stronger film if she figured some of that out on her own.

In working with the metaphor of the four elements, it takes an awkward position between acknowledging and disregarding science as we know it, where boldly choosing either one or the other approach, and solving the logistic and conceptual issues that may arise from that choice, would have made a stronger film. Let me also voice, the possibly unpopular opinion, that not every story must include romance. Ember’s process of self-discovery would be just as compelling if she and Wade developed a friendship, rather than a romantic relationship. Still, despite my caveats, I enjoyed watching the movie immensely. Elemental is a playful, colorful, densely textured, and vibrant fantasy, and fun for viewers of all ages.

Elemental

Director: Peter Sohn; Screenplay: John Hobert, Kat Likkel, Brenda Hsueh; Cinematography: David Juan Bianchi, Jean-Claude Kalache; Editor: Stephen Schaffer; Music: Thomas Newman; Cast (voice): Leah Lewish, Mamoudou Athie, Ronnie del Carmen, Shila Ommi, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Catherine O’Hara, Mason Wertheimer, Joe Pera