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Elemental (2023)

As a life-long worshiper of the cult of Zutara, I can’t say the romance at the heart of Pixar’s Elemental didn’t give me the feels.

Elemental follows Ember Lumen, the daughter of immigrants from Fireland, as she works hard to take over her father’s shop so he can finally retire. Ember rarely leaves the fire neighborhood of Element City, claiming everything she needs is right there.

The problem is, there are four kinds of people in Element City: fire people, earth people, water people, and air people. (Long ago, the four… you get the idea). Ember is intelligent and artistic, and her chance encounter with Wade Ripple (guess his element) shows her that she needs a bigger life than the one offered by her working class family’s store. Throughout the story, she comes to realize that her father’s dream of having her inherit the store is stifling and burdensome, and she only works so hard for it because her parents “sacrificed everything” to bring her to the shining Element City.

As expected, Pixar wastes no time capitalizing on the unique setting to bring us some striking and clever visuals: a group of air people slowly inflating a blimp as they file in; an earth person with a tree growing from them using their wooden nose to stamp a paper; a crowd of water people in a stadium doing a wave that literally becomes a wave. These moments always remind me of the endless visual potential of animation and excite me regardless of what’s happening in the plot.

These smart images also work to advance the drama and develop the main characters. Ember sees her reflection on the surface of Wade’s head in a dark subway car, enhancing the tension of this moment while giving the two an almost mystical, private moment in an otherwise fast-paced action scene. During an emotionally vulnerable scene, Ember’s face is reflected on Wade’s during a close-up, allowing us to see her sadness and Wade’s empathy, while distorting her image to make her look small and trapped.

There is some strange but not unwelcome use of rough lines on Ember’s ‘hair’. We wouldn’t expect computer-generated flames to have sharp, red edges that extend past the translucent, golden peaks of fire, but they tie together the sharpness of her look. They also lend a touch of something simulating hand-drawn lines, bringing her look back to her working class background as well as her love of making art; Ember is more tactile and solid than her loftier and more sentimental counterpart. 

I did not catch the trailers for this movie and therefore wasn’t looking for the classic tells of a romance. From that perspective, I found the slow-burn of the two main characters charmingly unexpected. Wade and Ember have a genuine chemistry that results in some fun flirtatious moments that most Disney films aren’t capable of due to their emphasis on timidity and modesty in their characters. Wade in particular is delightful to watch: with his painfully genuine feelings, he is transparent in more ways than one. He fits right in the expectations we might have for a water-themed being (compassionate, nurturing, socially fluid) while maintaining a distinctive character with his own conflicts, quirks, and desires.

From their disastrous meet-cute in the flooding basement of Ember’s shop, to becoming friends as they work the problem together, to their inevitable clash in the second act, something about this story feels a bit more ‘grown-up’ then other animated romances. Maybe not more mature, but perhaps a bit more worldly, drawing off the tropes of modern live-action romances rather than its parent company’s roots in ‘true love’ tales. While Disney’s bread and butter is the sincerest iteration of love stories, Pixar’s repertoire really only includes one, and I think we can all agree that WALL-E doesn’t fit the same mold as Beauty and the Beast or Cinderella. 


The clash of cultures is naturally at the center of the film’s conflict. Not so much the conflict of fire and water (the only conflict in that respect is chemical, not social) but the conflict of homogenized, upper middle class life, with its emphasis on individual choice and tolerance, and the diligent, insular infrastructure of immigrant communities, where it is presumed that roles, duties, and sacrifices are more important than following one’s heart.

The obvious parallels to real-world immigrant communities and the following xenophobia that atomizes them are strangely weak. Despite the years Ember’s parents have lived in and done business with the denizens of Element City, they don’t speak in full sentences. There is a world of difference between portraying a non-native speaker mixing up words and having them talk like cavemen – with the vaguely eastern European accents of Ember’s parents, this unflattering portrait of real people in our world is baffling. 

It’s simply too literal: they speak fireish, the language of fireland, but other firetown immigrants speak in different accents. What accounts for this? Do fire people live in different areas around the world? Were all their homelands flooded by storms, or is there an expansionist water-people state analogous to the USSR driving people to the City? This isn’t a facile knit-pick presented for the pleasure of poking holes in someone’s work, but a significant aspect of the world-view the movie takes. Why was coming to this land such a sacrifice that Ember feels she owes her life to the fortitude and bravery of her parents?

It’s hard not to see this movie’s logic falling into the same pitfalls as Zootopia’s: fire really can burn plants and vaporize water people, both of which happen in the film. So, do we take from this that xenophobia and racism are based on truths that are simply blown out of proportion?


All this has an effect on our emotional involvement with the story. The stated tension between fire and water people that act as an obstacle for our main character’s love feels flimsy. The emphasis on fire and water is alluring because opposites are fun to play with, but it gets in the way of the class struggle at the heart of the drama.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a certain subtlety to the individualized manifestations of xenophobia and racism. Ember’s trip-wire personality that twists from confident and professional to explosively angry is fed by discrimination and ostracization, demonstrating the vicious cycle marginalized communities face when confronted by the ignorance of the dominating society. Microaggressions make her angry, further alienating those who oppress her, making her anger even more necessary as a mechanism for defense and protection. She’s had to toughen up as a result of this kind of marginalization, and most of the film’s tension plays off the rigidity and fragility that this causes a person.

This hurdle notwithstanding, Elemental is emotional, visually exciting, and romantic. It’s well-worth the uncomfortable commitment to the one-to-one, real world comparison, because in the end, the love story feels genuine, the character’s feel distinct, and the ending is on-point. And really, those are all the elements you need.


Despite some unartful world-building, Elemental provides an emotionally authentic love story in a vibrant and visually potent setting.






Shain Slepian is a screenwriter, script consultant, and content creator with a life-long love of animation and media analysis. Their work can be found on Medium, and on their YouTube channel, TimeCapsule. Shain's book, Reframing The Screenwriting Process, is available on Amazon.