In Disney and Pixar’s latest animated gem, the four classical elements are embodied by different kinds of beings that don’t easily mix, setting the stage for two very different youngsters to challenge societal rules while discovering hidden truths inside their own hearts and proving the inherent power of diversity.
Fire and water, earth, and air. The four classical elements are familiar to any student of history, occurring as they do in ancient cultures from Greece, Egypt, India and beyond. For thousands of years philosophers used them to conceptualize the cosmos. The Greek physician Hippocrates even incorporated them into his theories about how the human body works, forging a profound connection between the natural world and our own lived experience.
In Disney and Pixar’s Elemental, director Peter Sohn welcomes us to Element City, where each of the four classical elements is embodied by a different kind of being. Within these fanciful surroundings, the film’s theme of connection takes center stage when Fire Person Ember Lumen (Leah Lewis) falls in love Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie) from the Water community. Through the course of their forbidden courtship, these two youngsters challenge the rules of the society in which they live, and discover deep truths hidden inside their own hearts.
The film’s opening sequence presents Element City as a bizarre wonderland filled with extraordinary life forms. At the same time, it is instantly familiar. As the Lumen family arrives in the harbor, we are quickly reminded of the millions of immigrants who landed on America’s Ellis Island during the first half of the 20th century. Thomas Newman’s gorgeous score does an incredible job of echoing this association, built as it is on a rich tapestry of musical influences that uses instruments from India and China.
Like those Ellis Island immigrants, Ember and her parents are amazed at the spectacle of a shining new city filled with promise. Yet their hopes are soon undermined when they are forced to change their name because nobody understands their language. Later, when they set off in search of somewhere to live, doors are slammed in their faces. As Ember later reflects, “The city isn’t made with Fire People in mind.”
Fast-forward several years, and Ember’s father, Bernie (Ronnie Del Carmen), has built a new life for his family, establishing a shop that caters to the local Fire Person community. Nobody can fault his work ethic, and by now he has learned enough of the language to speak a kind of pidgin English. His dream is that his hot-tempered daughter Ember will one day take over the shop and continue the tradition he has built from the ground up. However, we soon learn that what Bernie really wants is to be a better parent to Ember than his own father was to him.
In a moving flashback, Ember’s mother, Cinder (Shila Ommi), relates how a terrible storm forced the family to leave their home in Fire Land, taking with them the last spark of a mystical blue flame that “connected everyone together through our traditions and family.” For Bernie, the worst part came when he said goodbye to his disapproving father. When Bernie executed the “Bà Ksô,” a ritual bow of respect and love, his father failed to respond, saying only, “If you leave Fire Land you will lose who you are.”
At the beginning of the film, hot-headed Ember’s primary motivation is to make her father happy. Later, after meeting Wade, she begins to question whether this is really what she wants. During dinner with Wade’s family, she uses her fiery talents to remold a broken glass pitcher. This impresses Wade’s mother, who suggests that Ember should pursue a career in glass-making, setting up a conflict that Ember struggles to resolve. “Getting to do what you want is a luxury,” she tells Wade, “and not for people like me.” Indeed, she realizes that she has never asked herself what she really wants to do. “Deep down I knew it didn’t matter.”
As these layers of Ember’s character are gradually peeled back, we finally understand that here is the source of Ember’s temper. Conflicted between following the expectations of her family and culture, she has unknowingly suppressed her own secret desires. This theme of self-denial finds its ultimate expression in her growing relationship with Wade.
In contrast to Ember, Wade is a laid-back character who is also highly emotional. By coaxing Ember into connecting with her emotions, he releases the tension she has been carrying inside herself for so long. The turning point comes when he causes a single, impossible tear to roll down her red-hot cheek, simply by telling her that he wants to be near her.
When Ember and Wade finally make physical contact – in a beautiful scene where they cautiously touch hands before embracing – they defy not only the rules of the city, but also the laws of physics. As Wade puts it, “We changed each other’s chemistry.” In this moment, their love becomes the ultimate expression of connection, both physically and emotionally. Like Romeo and Juliet before them, Wade and Ember achieve a state of togetherness that transcends all that has come before and defines all that is to come.
In support of this emotionally layered narrative, Sohn and his team have created an extraordinary new fantasy realm in the form of Element City. Through clever world-building, the vast scale of the metropolis is beautifully balanced with small vignettes showing the realities of everyday life. Air people board a floating blimp, automatically filling the vessel with the gas it needs to fly. Water people travel in lumbering submarines. Everywhere we look, close encounters between the different races trigger a bewildering array of amusing reactions.
Meanwhile, the talented artists at Pixar have broken new ground by exploring a different visual style for each of the four races. The Fire People are rendered in sketchy fashion, with jagged outlines changing unpredictably in the manner of candle flames. In contrast, the Water People are soft and pliable. The people of Earth and Air are solid and nebulous respectively.
The races may be clearly defined, but that does not mean they are not complex and sometimes contradictory. Hot-headed Ember accidentally destroys things by setting them on fire, but she also creates beauty by using her powers to sculpt molten glass. Wade may be soft and emotional, but by transforming his transparent body into a lens he creates a burning beam of light. Indeed, the film’s only real antagonist is the natural force of flood, the ultimate manifestation of “go with the flow” water as a destructive force.
Elemental takes our preconceptions about what a thing is and turns them on their heads. It encourages us to see the world in a new way. Critically it invites us to see it from the point of view of another person, just like the star-crossed lovers Ember and Wade. This is what lies at the heart of Elemental – the power that lies in accepting diversity, in seeing every facet of a person. Through the strong empathy that great cinema so effortlessly allows, it allows us to experience things from a different perspective.
The film’s final word on the subject of connection comes with Ember’s ultimate revelation – that she can be honest about not wanting to run the shop without destroying her relationship with her father. The message is clear – if we open our hearts in truth and love, we have nothing to fear. Doing so will only bring us closer to people through mutual respect and understanding. All we need is the courage to follow Ember’s own personal mantra: “Take breath, make connection.”
Note that Sohn will be attending this year's VIEW Conference in-person. You can catchup on all recent VIEW 2023 news here, which includes the latest speaker and presentation announcements.
Dr. Maria Elena Gutierrez is the CEO and executive director of VIEW Conference, Italy’s premiere annual digital media conference. She holds a Ph.D. from Stanford University and a BA from the University of California Santa Cruz. VIEW Conference is committed to bringing a diversity of voices to the forefront in animation, visual effects, and games. For more information about the VIEW Conference, visit the official website: http://viewconference.it