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Tyler's Takes: In Defense of 'Elemental'

June 22, 2024
Tyler Banark
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As I was making my Top 10 Pixar Movie list in preparation for Inside Out 2, there was one specific movie that, while coming close, didn’t make the cut. It’s been on my mind a lot over the past year and was even the main inspiration for this series I’m starting here. The movie in question is Elemental, a sleeper hit that was initially met with mixed reactions, poor marketing, and a barely profitable box office campaign. It was a fever dream of a film through its unusual release, and, while it does have a misstep here and there, it should have received more love than it got. One could say its biggest laurel placed upon it was a simple namecheck nomination in the Best Animated Feature category at the Oscars, where it was easily trounced by Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse and The Boy and the Heron, the latter being the winner. Still, in a time where Pixar is making films that either feel too safe, don’t stick the landing, or totally miss the mark by a mile, Elemental circumvented all those traps through a valiant risk-taking effort.

Spoiler Warning: Specific story points will be mentioned

Like many other Pixar films, Elemental is brilliantly animated and presents itself as simple on the surface, yet rich in complexity as it delves into themes of immigration, familial expectations, and social class. These themes are embodied in one of our two main characters, Ember. The first two themes are vital as her parents, Bernie and Cinder, immigrated to Element City in search of a new life, their journey being fraught with challenges, such as finding a place to live while facing xenophobia and prejudice. As Ember grows up, she’s led to solely believe she’ll one day take over her father’s shop. This nuanced exploration of societal issues and expectations adds depth to the film and invites the audience to reflect on these themes.

The theme of social class is also seen in Ember and her counterpart/love interest, Wade. Ember comes from a working-class family of immigrants who sacrificed everything and live in a rundown building that houses their home and Bernie’s shop. Meanwhile, Wade comes from a more well-to-do family, as we see them living in a fancy high-rise apartment. The dichotomy of these two character’s financial upbringings was not something I would expect to see in a Pixar film, yet it effectively bolsters the narrative by adding an element of uncertainty to their relationship.

Another commendable component of Elemental is its ability to be a family-friendly rom-com, something the marketing department failed to highlight. Posing as the strongest aspect of the film’s script, this subplot sees Ember and Wade’s relationship go through the beats we’ve come to expect within raunchier entries in the genre. Neither of them gets along with the other when they first meet, with Ember wanting nothing more than for Wade, a water person who works as a city inspector, to leave her father’s shop alone. He writes them up for a citation as their pipes aren’t up to city code, while also helping her find a way to have them waived. Hilarity ensues as they spend more time together and meet each other’s families. When Wade meets Ember’s parents, he’s greeted with hostility as he claims to be a food inspector. In doing so, Bernie forces Wade to eat a traditional fire dish that causes him to bubble up from the heat. On the contrary, when Ember meets Wade’s family, they treat her kindly and think nothing of their different elements. Audiences can tell director Peter Sohn took heavy inspiration from numerous rom-coms, most notably Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Moonstruck, to convey the love story on display.

The more time Ember and Wade spend together, from attending a sporting event to building a barricade, the more their feelings mutually grow, eventually settling into a case of opposites attracting. They go out on dates, seen in a beautiful montage accompanied by Lauv’s original anthem, “Steal the Show.” But their relationship is held back by one crucial thing: elements can’t mix without harming each other. When they decide to put this theory to the test, they discover that they can in fact touch each other (change each other’s chemistry, as Wade put it), and share a little dance in celebration. While it is of course beautifully animated and soulfully (no pun intended) written, the uplift during this moment comes from a dreamy score provided by the great Thomas Newman. It encompasses that feeling couples get when the world stops around them, all all they can do is be right here, right now. There’s a reminiscent feel within this scene to the similarly thematic one in WALL-E, which Newman also scored.

Have no fear though, as your skepticism surrounding the possibility that the movie would simply follow the rom-com formula beat-for-beat gets subverted. In many cases, the film’s climax happens after the love interests go apart, most likely through a big where they confront each other in public, reconciling their differences and solidifying their love. Right after Ember and Wade have their dance, she tells him it’s over as she remembers that she must stay loyal to her father’s wishes, always putting them above herself. Moments later, Wade crashes Ember’s family party celebrating Bernie’s retirement. Wade monologues about the reasons why he and Ember can’t be together, reminding her that there are “a million nos… But there's also one yes.”

If Elemental wanted to make the safe decision to follow every other rom-com, Ember would’ve said it back, proudly telling her family and friends that elements can mix, and Wade is accepted. However, Ember tells Wade she doesn’t love him back and demands that he leave. Wade does so… but they later reconcile and express their love in the film’s climax. Look, this is still a Disney movie after all, there has to be a happy ending.

Part of what makes numerous Pixar movies amazing is how complex they are underneath the surface. The Incredibles pushes the envelope of what can be included for a PG movie, Ratatouille and the Toy Story movies tackle the theme of purpose, WALL-E focuses on a show, don’t tell narrative approach rarely seen in family movies, while Up and Coco act as films that discuss the act of letting go of dark clouds. Elemental is no different from them as it acts as a rom-com for the whole family that doesn’t follow the formulaic plot that can come with that subgenre. It stands alone as Pixar’s first movie to land on its feet after a disappointing streak to start the 2020s. Onward and Luca played it safe, Soul and Lightyear bit off more than they could chew, and Turning Red’s execution didn’t work the way it wanted. Unlike those movies, Elemental was a risk-taking effort that stuck the landing in a way I wish a lot of others could see.

You can follow Tyler and hear more of his thoughts on Twitter, Instagram, and Letterboxd.

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