It’s been said that the four elements live in harmony with one another. This is true enough in a world where humans semi-effectively control them, but what about in a world where the elements are the humanoids? This is the question that Pixar asks in their latest feature film, ‘Elemental’.
After a string of straight to Disney+ releases and lackluster performances at the box office, with ‘Elemental’, Pixar reminds audiences why they were once the most-revered animation studio in the game. The world that they created in this film is beautiful and vast, but the story at its core is so relatable and moving that it keeps you grounded on the characters and their experiences rather than getting lost (happily, I might add) in the scenery around them.
As a fire sign whose first name is only one vowel different from the main character’s, I was most interested in learning about Ember Lumen (voiced by Leah Lewis) going into this film. A second-generation to Element City, she feels the heat from her father to take over the family business, with no option for an opinion of her own. Her desire to be a good daughter is what sets off the chain of events of ‘Elemental’, as she tries to save her father’s livelihood. Lewis leans hard into Ember’s fiery persona, bringing a passion and vibrancy to the character that you can’t help but fall in love with.
While ‘Elemental’ is clearly Ember’s story, none of it would be possible without Mamoudou Athie’s Wade Ripple. When we first meet him, it seems like Wade is just another himbo, but as the story progresses, he displays his emotional intelligence and teaches Ember that there is more to the world around her than just Fire Town. While there is more I would have liked to learn about Wade during the film (namely about his fraught relationship with his father), he serves his purpose in being both Ember’s and the audience’s guide to Element City, and Athie pours his heart into voicing Wade, making him endearing and lovable to even those who would judge first and ask questions later.
Fire and water are the main elements of this story, but the background characters of air and earth round out the world nicely. Clod, a little earth boy hopelessly in love with Ember, manages to strike the perfect balance between annoying and adorable, and provides some of the best laughs in the movie. Wade’s boss at City Hall, a cloud named Gale, helps move the plot forward, and it’s in a scene about her favorite sport where we learn not only more about the city, but about Wade and how infectious his go-with-the-flow attitude can be.
Ember’s mother and father, Cinder and Burny, are the first fire people to ever settle in Element City. They encounter confusion and discrimination upon their arrival, and the cold shoulder they received tainted their perception of the other elements – namely water. This forced them to create their own town inside Element City and separate themselves from the rest of the world. This took a toll on Burny especially, as he raises his daughter to be proud to come from fire and teaches her that the other elements just want to “water them down”. He became so bitter and resentful of the way he and his family were treated that he never gave the other elements a chance to be better, even once Fire Town grew. He would have held onto his belief until he burnt out, if it weren’t for the newer generation showing him things can be different if both sides are open to it.
Not since WALL-E has Pixar created a film with a love story at its center, and I would argue that Wade and Ember’s relationship is the strongest and most realistic romantic relationship that Pixar has ever created. He shows her that there is more to life outside Fire Town, and that there are people who won’t judge you for where you come from, and will actively work to make you feel welcome. Her fire brings him to life, showing him true passion and exuberance. And at no point in the movie do they try to change who the other is; they simply guide each other to be the best version of themselves.
Location, Location, Location
Element City is a vast metropolis, with sections dedicated to each type of citizen, in the same vein of Zootopia. And just like in ‘Zootopia’, the audience gets glimpses of life in certain parts of the city, but we don’t go deep into it and learn its ins and outs. Wade and Ember could be just the start of telling stories in Element City, as the locale lends itself easily to a series of shorts, like ‘Zootopia’ had with ‘Zootopia+’. Earth, water, fire, air; all of these elements have stories that can be told in the fertile soil of this world.
Pixar used to be the elite of animation studios, but over the past few years, their films have lacked the spark of their early days. In the age of remakes, reboots, and sequels, Pixar dared to make original films. The only problem was that they just didn’t resonate with audiences. But with their latest installment, it seems Pixar is back in their element.
‘Elemental’ is in theaters now.