Pixar’s latest film “Elemental” is a romantic comedy set in a city where all residents are either air, water, earth or fire. There are many scenes that left me, and a couple other families, confounded at our Friday morning showing at the movie theater. While the premise of the movie seems simple enough — and almost sounds like an attempt at self-parody for the animation studio that has built their legacy on tearjerkers about inanimate objects with feelings — it is dressed in an extended metaphor about xenophobia and interracial dating.
The films protagonist is Ember (Leah Lewis), a young woman with a fiery personality born to two immigrant Fire elements from Fireland, who now run a convenience store on the outskirts of Elemental City. After a water leak breaks out in the store, Ember meets Wade (Mamoudou Athie), the go-with-the-flow city inspector Water element. Unfortunately for them both, and as Ember tells the prepubescent Earth element who has a crush on her, ‘elements don’t mix’ in Elemental City.
I don’t doubt that Peter Sohn, Pixar veteran and director of this film, approached this film with a very personal angle in mind. In an interview with NPR, he discussed being inspired by his upbringing in New York with two Korean immigrant parents as a child who had a gift for the arts, much like Ember does. There are moments where this personal touch does come across effectively. Sohn centers Ember’s emotional conflict around her struggle to choose between following her own path or living up to her parents' dreams after all their sacrifices for her, a struggle that is likely familiar to anybody with immigrant parents. Still, “Elemental” spends too much time commenting on its themes with an abundance of heavy-handed metaphors regarding the real-world political and societal implications of the story.
Ember’s father, Bernie (Ronnie Del Carmen), remarks that “water always water fire down” throughout the movie, prompting Ember to respond, “it’s water person, actually.” At another point in the film, Ember tells her father “not all water look the same” when he catches Wade inside their shop. When Ember meets Wade’s family, they comment on how concise and proper her speech is. When Wade meets Ember’s family, there’s a gag about how he can’t eat “hot food,” a playful appropriation of something you might see in other multi-cultural romantic comedies like “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” with spicy food.
The more questionable moments in the film depict allegorical instances of micro-aggressions, or full-on racially motivated harassment with element-appropriate racial slurs such as “windpuff” or “fireball.” When Ember and Wade start to grow closer, Ember opens up about when her father took her into Elemental City as a child to see the garden of Vivisteria, and a sign in front read “No Fire Allowed!” while other Elements told them to “Go back to Firetown!”
“Elemental” has come out at a crucial time for Pixar, being their second film to underperform in theaters after relegating several acclaimed films to streaming-only releases on Disney+ since the pandemic. Last month, 75 employees were laid off at the company as part of a larger round of layoffs across all Disney-owned companies, among which was “Lightyear” director Angus MacLane. As disappointed as I was with the film, I’m not all that happy to see one of my favorite film studios in such a precarious position, and I fear its box office performance will lead to fewer original Pixar films being made in the future.
At its best, “Elemental” was still able to deliver some great moments and stunning animation. It isn’t hard to understand why the idea of a love story between two elements that can’t touch would appeal to Pixar; there is a good amount of tension communicated in the quieter moments of the film. In one scene, Ember runs across a path of multi-colored crystals while changing colors herself and Wade glides across nearby water as the mist behind him creates a rainbow.
The problem is that these moments, that are so effective in reminding one why Pixar films should belong on the big screen, are far and few between. I really hope the iconic studio finds a way out of their slump, or we’ll all be worse off.