When it comes to mixing chemicals, Pixar knows how to achieve the right balance of heart and humor. And for Peter Sohn’s “Elemental,” they have found that blending together sweet, heartfelt opposites attract romance with an immigrant story. Inspired by his own experience as a child of immigrant parents living in New York, Pixar’s latest has fun using its beautiful animation and real-life physics to concoct a sentimental and whimsy story of love, legacy, and finding your identity.
“Elemental” opens with the Lumen family emigrating from their home to Element City. It’s a place populated by the elements of Earth, air, and Water. Inspired by Ellis Island, the Lumens arrive hoping to achieve the dream of a better life for themselves and their family. However, it’s not exactly a welcoming city as the prejudices reveal themselves. Immigrant agents have difficulty pronouncing their names, and landlords aren’t renting out to them because of their firey nature. With no other place to go, Bernie (Ronnie del Carmen), his wife Cinder (Shila Ommi), and their newborn daughter Ember (Clara Lin Ding) eventually find a hollowed-out brownstone tenement that they will call home and place of business.
Years later, Ember (Leah Lewis) is grown up and eager to take over the family business of selling fire-based snacks and lava java. Though she believes she is ready, her firey temper suggests otherwise as she gets angry with customers who bombard her or don’t understand the basic concepts of buy one get one free. As such, she tends to emotionally blow up under pressure, just as anyone would. So much so that family friends already have a temperature gauge to see how hot she can get in the face of relentlessly demanding customers. But her temper is a sign that maybe this line of business isn’t for her. Perhaps she is destined to do something else in her life that would define her identity. And that’s where Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie) comes in. One of her outbursts leads to a broken pipe where our overly emotional waterworks city inspector pops in. Seeing all the violations and lack of permits, Wade has no choice but to write up multiple tickets on her home and place of business that her dad built. But she makes an appeal to him despite having already processed the tickets. However, her words about her family and what they’ve been through got to him, and he offers a way to reverse it by going through the proper channels.
Soon, their relationship evolves into something unexpected, where two incompatible elements start to have some real chemistry. And as they wait to hear the final results, audiences are taken on a tour through Element City, a combination of different social classes and infrastructure. The central hub is where Air, Earth, and Water live. Most of which are luxury high-rises and sports stadiums. At the same time, Fire lives on the outskirts right next to concrete riverbeds where the excess water runs dangerously close to their homes and places of business. Still, we get to see the wonders of this city where Pixar gets to be playful with real-life science. Ember’s firey nature comes alive as the flame changes color when it touches different minerals. As for Wade, he can skim across the water to spray a beautiful rainbow. The sequence itself is a sight made for theatrical viewing, and Thomas Newman’s score captures all of the beautiful emotion that comes with their natural connection and real-life physics.
“Elemental’s” opposites attract story makes for a sweet romantic comedy of two opposing elements that either extinguish or snuff each other out at just one touch. The film goes through the usual motions of them making that natural connection, with Wade trying to make an emotional connection. At the same time, Ember is slightly more apprehensive at the idea of them being in a relationship. She recognizes all the sacrifices her parents made for her and therefore has placed high expectations upon herself to carry on her family’s legacy. She cast aside any notion of relationships that would not work and any chance of forging her own path in life. Wade was raised differently. His family encouraged him to follow his dreams because his family could afford such pursuits. So not only are these two elementally incompatible, but they are also socially mismatched. And, yet, they somehow can make a connection that defies the laws of physics and love. However, they agree that they must “Embrace the light while it burns because it won’t always last forever.” It’s a resonating sentiment.
And their personalities don’t exactly lead to chemistry, either. Ember is an introverted and private flame that holds on to her emotions until her anger becomes so much that she has no choice but to burst with heat. While Wade wears his heart on his sleeve and cries whenever someone says something sentimental or sweats a lot whenever he gets nervous. Again, all of this plays to the basics of a romantic comedy. Yet, it still can connect because it’s familiar and Pixar’s interpretation of a romantic comedy.
Sohn’s Elemental is a beautiful film where culture clashes and opposites attract romance are only parts of a metaphor. Drawing from his experience growing up as a child of immigrant parents, we see how much of his life is reflected in Ember’s efforts to honor her family while choosing to forge her identity. Ember’s grandmother’s dying wish for her granddaughter to marry into fire moments before she is extinguished may look funny at first. Still, it rings true for many first-generation families that emigrate to a new home. Wade tries to make a good impression on Ember’s father – albeit under false pretenses – but it still rings true to those in a new relationship who want to become a part of the family despite their differences in race or social class. All the prejudices the characters experience and express reflect the world we live in today, and if not addressed, can lead to some unwarranted resentment.
As for the production side of things, Ember and Wade’s designs have this balance of real-life physics and cartoony appeal. The physicality of how these characters move and interact with certain objects draws from real-life science, with Ember and the citizens of fire town oscillating at different frequencies for different movements, while Wade’s physical makeup had a more water in motion and reflection and refraction sciences to work with. And all of that hat to work in conjunction with Thomas Newman’s outstanding score.
Aside from all of the element puns that are peppered throughout the film, “Elemental” is a sweet and heartfelt film, where its animation continues to burn with creativity and ingenuity, and its storytelling flows with emotion. It’s so much more than just a romantic comedy about opposites attracting or the immigrant experience. Pixar’s latest animates cultural clashes in creative ways and examines the pressures of children trying to live up to the pressures of their immigrant parents – otherwise known as immigrant guilt. So while some “Elemental” may be formulaic, at least we can rest knowing that Pixar has original storytelling down to a science.
Elemental in theaters June 16, 2023!