“Elements cannot mix!”
It’s interesting to imagine what the pitch for the hit Pixar movie Inside Out was like back in 2009. There could not have been a more unorthodox meeting taking place in Hollywood that day than director Pete Docter convincing then-studio head John Lasseter that a movie where all the characters were feeling, not people, but feelings, would be the next hit for Pixar. But Docter was given the green light, the movie was made, and a hit was born. This month the studio makes a similar gamble, this time with the elements of the earth (fire, water, air, and earth) for Elemental, their newest release. The notion of crafting a whole storyline around the four main elements does sound appealing, but just as with Inside Out, the question of whether or not such a concept can be sustained long enough to actually convey a story of substance remains. If Elemental does anything right, it proves it can.
Set in the sprawling landscape of Element City, Elemental centers on Ember (Leah Lewis), a young fire element who plans on taking over her father’s fire store in the predominantly fire-heavy community of Fire Town. When a series of failing pipes bring along a small flood of water, along with a water element Wade (Mamoudou Athie), who makes his living as a city inspector, the future of the store is thrown into peril. Enlisting Wade’s help, Ember goes to great lengths to save her father’s store, including stepping outside of Fire Town and looking at the other elements in a way she hadn’t before.
Elemental‘s story is both timeless and timely. Packed with the kind of animation, sight gags, and emotion that is now being successfully catered to both kids and adults, the film can touch on a myriad of traditional themes without feeling dated or stale. Ember is the perfect character for this kind of story, emblematic of many people who are the children of immigrants, and whose family history is with them through every step of their own journey. It’s the immigrant’s experience that emerges as the most predominant and truest of all the themes within Elemental. Throughout the course of the movie, we see Ember do her best to live up to whatever expectations and obligations she feels are being thrust upon her, due to the influence of her family’s history, while also doing the kind of battle most adult children of immigrants come up against. In the course of Elemental, we see Ember grapple with culture vs. identity, tradition vs. progress, and most importantly, where her own ambitions fit into the equation. Ember’s ambitions are perhaps the biggest component of her overall journey as it forces her to imagine a life not dictated by the one she always thought she should have.
When Elemental becomes the most telling is when it shows the extremely timely side of its story. The cultural (read racial) tensions are boldly presented here whenever any two different elements are seen existing in the same space. This is especially true in the movie’s opening moments when we see Ember’s parents who have just arrived in Element City being refused apartment after apartment by other elements. It’s an act that rubs off on them and to some extent Ember, as they treat any non-fire element who enters their store with suspicion, or at the very least, disdain. Ember’s journey with Wade, though done out of desperation to preserve her family’s legacy, shows an effort on the young generation’s part to break away from all of the ways of the past and forge the path that helps to end the cycle. Ember’s dinner with Wade’s feelings-heavy family and his struggle to eat some of the flaming hot food served at her father’s store are moments of humor that also speak to the willingness of young people to step out of their cultural comfort zones. But the biggest struggle for both Ember and Wade is in their future as a potential couple and whether or not the former has enough faith in the latter to give them a chance.
I sincerely hope that Elemental becomes the hit it deserves to be, especially since its marketing push has been curiously quiet, much in the way last fall’s wonderful Strange World was. But regardless of marketing, no one can accuse Pixar of not taking risks when it comes to the types of projects they put out. Elemental follows in the tradition of the aforementioned Inside Out and even Soul (still the best movie of 2020) as a high-concept story featuring ideas that might not seem tangible on the surface but are more universal than most could’ve guessed. These are the stories kids need to watch. While most animated movies have always sought to impart important life lessons amid entertainment, they have now entered a new phase of being both highly imaginative and invaluably authentic, showing the world and the complexities of people as they exist today.