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From Cannes: ‘Elemental’ is a Lovely Beginning to a Conversation

Dir. Peter Sohn - 4 Stars

Ember (voiced by Leah Lewis) and Wade (voiced by Mamoudou Athie) in Pixar's "Elemental."
Ember (voiced by Leah Lewis) and Wade (voiced by Mamoudou Athie) in Pixar's "Elemental." By Courtesy of Disney
By Millie Mae Healy, Crimson Staff Writer

A respectable addition to Pixar’s impressive catalog, “Elemental” is a beautiful film about gaps of understanding, chasing your dreams, and the immigrant experience. Protagonist Ember (Leah Lewis), an anthropomorphic fire being, reckons with her family legacy and attempts to find herself in the bustling Element City. In a place that is occupied by people formed from all four elements but that is often unwelcoming to people from Ember’s background, “Elemental” explores her process of creating a home in a place that doesn’t want her while honoring everything her parents did for her future.

An allegorical immigrant narrative, “Elemental” begins with Ember’s mother (Shila Ommi) and father (Ronnie del Carmen) moving to Element City before Ember’s birth. It deftly showcases varying microaggressions and full-on racism in a way that feels devastatingly real. Its inclusion of their family’s native language, characters being forced to change their names, and casually racist assumptions is impactful, and allows the film to meaningfully explore real world issues while simultaneously excelling as a lively cartoon.

Like all the best animated films, “Elemental” is lovely to look at, featuring vibrant colors and elements drawn in different styles. Though the concept of four elements is a much used trope, the bustling city setting appears gorgeously imaginative. It’s easy to imagine that this world is bursting at the seams with interesting lives and stories, but unfortunately what it’s like living in this city goes largely undeveloped. The few aspects we do see feel contrived to serve Ember’s story rather than act as part of an existing world since they do not appear again. Central settings like Fire Town and Wade’s job go woefully unexplored. As a result, despite featuring lots of cool background aspects, Element City lacks cohesion, and feels like a set piece instead of a believable place.

“Elemental” gestures at an important conversation about equity and fair accommodations, but doesn’t quite offer a satisfying conclusion. Ember often feels out of place in public spaces out of Fire Town, partly because of unwelcoming attitudes, and partly because her propensity to burn doesn’t always mix well with other elements. But when the film shows off the water canals and how Air people have dedicated spaces to float on public transit, it becomes clear that the problem is not Ember, but a lack of any attempt to include a quarter of the population. This discussion sadly remains as subtext, but the conclusion of Ember’s emotional arc does suggest the potential for further expansion in a future project.

Furthermore, the plot unfortunately lacks smoothness. Events typically unfold when one character unpromptedly mentions something bad or sad that happened to them, and later, also without a natural segue, the character who listened to this anecdote tries to make amends for that bad memory. But though this roughness deprives the film of a little grace and prevents “Elemental” from feeling like a completely realized world, the film’s central narrative remains strong.

Ember is a sympathetic protagonist, as she is just trying to do her best and do the right thing. She valiantly works hard even when she struggles and doesn’t feel completely suited to her life path, making her an excellent children’s protagonist. She is interesting, with a sense of humor and values that never stoop to moralizing, with Lewis shining as her voice actor.

Ember spends the film on a quest to save her father’s store from a city office that wants to shut it down due to code violations. This mundanity is perhaps ironic given the fantastical setting, but it is actually incredibly fitting that the story hinges on the incompetence and heartlessness of bureaucracy. “Elemental” is a story of love and grit, of immigrant families working hard to make a life for themselves, and of the power of following your dreams and never giving up. By choosing not to feature a magical adventure, or any singular malicious villain, “Elemental” makes itself real, and in prioritizing a message that everyone can make mistakes, but everyone can do better, makes itself unique.

In addition, “Elemental” places more of an emphasis on romance than the typical Pixar film. A significant portion of the film is devoted to Ember’s getting to know water-being Wade (Mamoudou Athie), the build-up of their chemistry, and their realization that their opposite attitudes are not incompatible. Though unexpected, it is heartwarming, and stands out as one of the film’s strongest takeaways. Another fascinating moment comes when Ember meets Wade’s family, and is uncomfortable as a being made of fire in his water park home, but unlike many of the other people she has passed in the city, they actively welcome her and want to get to know her. This scene also provides nuance in that despite being well-meaning, Wade’s family make offensive comments about Ember’s heritage. However, they apologize and learn from their mistakes.

Though aspects of “Elemental” could have benefitted from a bit more polish, it is overall a genuine romance exploring a heartfelt incarnation of the immigrant experience narrative.

— Staff writer Millie Mae Healy can be reached at milliemae.healy@thecrimson.com.

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