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Elemental Review: Disney Pixar Revisits Its Most Successful Themes in This Predictable Romantic Comedy
As expected, the graphics excel in this unique animated love story.
Initially, "Elemental" appears as nothing more than a moderately ingenious concept. It's Pixar Animation Studios' latest project, a Disney affiliate that creatively highlights the contrasts - and, in the end, parallels - among people from diverse cultural backgrounds.
But as the narrative unfolds, the story gains traction. It features personified Fire, Water, Earth, and Air residents cohabiting in the urban hub of Element City. The tale comes into its own as it draws upon time-tested plot devices from romantic stories of star-crossed lovers and narratives about parents and their children.
Release date: June 16, 2023
Director: Peter Sohn
Story by: Peter Sohn; John Hoberg; Kat Likkel; Brenda Hsueh
Distributed by: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Elemental Radiates Visual Beauty but Stays Within the Conventional Boundaries
"Elemental" draws inspiration from its director, Peter Sohn, a second-generation immigrant. His parents moved him from Korea to the United States during his childhood. He later married an American woman, a relationship he initially kept secret from his family. His grandmother's last words were "Marry Korean!", as he shares in the film's production notes.
The visually stunning narrative begins by presenting a Fire couple, Bernie (Ronnie del Carmen) and Cinder Lumen (Shila Ommi). They journey from Fireland by boat to embark on a new life, bringing with them only a blue flame symbolizing their history and community.
Their first encounter with Element City isn't warm - the city's structure is least welcoming to the Fire people, as they were the last to establish themselves.
Despite this, the Lumens find a spot in the Firetown neighborhood. They start a shop named the Fireplace and, most importantly, welcome a baby girl, Ember, into their lives.
Elemental is a cinematic narrative that delves into the subject of immigration.
Right from the opening scene, Elemental actively presents itself as a film exploring the immigrant experience, instantly distinguishing itself from criticisms of being just "Zootopia with elements."
We witness Ember's parents docking at the equivalent of Ellis Island in Element City, where a customs agent swiftly Anglicizes, or "Element-realizes," their Firish names to Bernie (voiced by Ronnie del Carmen) and Cinder Lumen (voiced by Shila Ommi).
Bernie and Cinder constitute the pioneering wave of fire-people reaching Element City, where water-, earth-, and air people have long-shared coexistence.
Despite their attempts to blend into the vast cultural melting pot of Element City, they face overt hostility and scorn. Moreover, they grapple with the concrete issue that much of Element City's infrastructure - including its subway system - centers around water. The city's design does not cater to fire-people.
Elemental's initial montage narrates Bernie and Cinder's settling process in what soon evolves into Fire Town, an older neighborhood isolated from the remainder of Element City. There, they establish a booming business. This efficient opening sequence paves the way for understanding Bernie and Cinder's distrust of water people, their tight-knit community, and the significance of their fire-centric shop - aptly named "The Fireplace."
However, Elemental sometimes stumbles when exploring fire-people's culture, amalgamating elements from various real-world cultures. This, coupled with the older fire-people's accented voice performances and occasionally fractured dialogue, risks slipping into caricature.
Conversely, the cultures of the water-, earth-, and air citizens remain less developed, potentially due to greater integration and the story focusing less on them.
The love story in Elemental is irresistibly charming
Elemental constructs an elaborate plot around a water pipe leak in the Fireplace to bring Ember and Wade together. This storyline unfolds predictably, with an arbitrary deadline for the duo to meet and the leak's return to provide an action-filled climax.
However, Elemental thrives on the interactions between Ember and Wade outside their mission.
Thanks to the combination of Ember and Wade, Elemental evolves into Pixar's first full-blown rom-com. The couple enjoys dates to movies like Tide and Prejudice (one among many element-themed puns offered by the film), encounters awkward situations with parents, and learns significant life lessons from each other. Largely, this approach proves to be incredibly successful.
At first glance, Ember and Wade perfectly represent the "opposites attract" principle. His presence could extinguish her, and hers could vaporize him into steam — their emerging romance implies potential catastrophe for all parties. But their differences run deeper than a mere chemical composition. Ember embodies intensity and a short temper, strongly tied to her family and their expectations.
On the other hand, Wade, hailing from a wealthy Element City family, is a timid bureaucrat who prefers harmony. His empathetic and sentimental nature doesn't conflict with Ember's passion and drive; instead, they complement each other (and vice versa).
Lewis and Athie lend their voices to Ember and Wade, masterfully animating their initially conflicting personalities. Their vocal chemistry is so compelling that their every shared scene had me eagerly anticipating their interactions, chuckling with delight.