Whether we’re willing to admit it or not, the majority of us in the United States are immigrants. Unless we can track our lineage to the Indigenous peoples of the land, we come from the United Kingdom, Ireland, Scotland, China, Japan, Taiwan, Algeria, Nigeria, Botswana, Mexico, El Salvador, Argentina, and more. With each new crop of immigrants, the same old issues come up: who was the country built for, who was it designed for, and what are we doing to make things equitable for all? Director/co-writer Peter Sohn (The Good Dinosaur) uses the framework of a Romeo/Juliet love story to explore the ways in which immigrants often struggle with establishing themselves in a new country, the internal fight to maintain cultural identity amid pressures to assimilate, and the ways in which privilege blinds us from recognizing failing infrastructure.
Ember Lumen (voiced by Leah Lewis) is a first-generation immigrant from Fire Land, brought over by her parents Bernie and Cinder (voiced by Ronnie del Carmen and Shila Ommi respectively) before she was born, raised in Element City, and who has never left Fire Town. That is, until an accident at her father’s shop results in flooding that city building inspector Wade (voiced by Mamoudou Athie) can’t ignore and the only way to prevent all of Wade’s citations from shutting down the shop that Bernie wants Ember to take over is to discover why there was water in the pipes in the first place. Teaming up, the pair discovers a lot more than the cause of the flooding, they find unexpected meaning in each other.
If you’d like to learn about the film in a more spoiler-free context, head over to EoM Contributor Gabe Lapalombella’s initial theatrical release review. Moving forward, I’ll be exploring all the hot details that got my tears flowing.
The script by Sohn and first-time feature screenwriters Kat Likkel, John Hoberg, and Brenda Hsueh, may appear to be playing in the obvious as Ember is an anthropomorphic flame, Wade is anthropomorphic water, and there are characters who are anthropomorphic flora and clouds. No, there isn’t an Avatar to bring these four elements together, but each one is emblematic of a cultural divide that Ember and Wade are destined to challenge and cross. What’re less obvious are the truths hidden within the film which elevate it beyond the situational humor (Ember passes too closely to a tree person and they go up like tinder, left with just branches; a *young* adolescent character called Clod (voiced by Mason Wertheimer) hits on Ember using his freshly grown “armpit hair” (flower) to prove his adulthood) which allows for Elemental to possess surprising depths. In the opening sequence where a newly arrived Bernie and Cinder reach Element City, they don’t speak the language and the figure welcoming them doesn’t try to work it out, get a translator, or otherwise respect who they are; they just give them fire-related names and welcome them in. This is a bit of a joke, of course, but it also speaks to real experiences when immigrants come to a new country without understanding the language and the receiver doesn’t care to be precise. Having Rogal relatives in the United Kingdom and Royal relatives in the U.S., a by-product of failed reading comprehension during the registration process, I recognized what the script depicts in this sequence as speaking to a long history in the U.S. of presumed assimilation via entry, rather than treating cultural identity as sacred. So much of what Ember goes through speaks to first-generation immigrant issues regarding their dreams versus those of their parents, holding onto who they are while maintaining their roots, and the pain of the schism between being the person you are versus who you’re expected to be.
Prior to this conversation between the Lumens and the immigration officer, the viewing audience is shown a few quick flashes of how Element City was established, images of Water being the first, followed by Trees, then Air, and then Fire. Before the Lumens even open their mouths, the audience is told that this city is built by Water, thereby creating a subconscious priority order for its citizenry in terms of who it’s built for and how it will function. This is why Ember doesn’t leave Fire Town. She’d run the risk of engaging with an architectural landscape that’s not designed for Fire people to operate within. That the problem, as we learn of it, correlates to a break in an overflow barrier designed to keep water from a Water vessel from pouring into Fire Town and the inspector division can’t (a) delegate resources to find it and (b) leave the handling of the problem to Ember and Wade rather than making sure the proper people address it, speaks to the privilege that comes from being a position where ensuring the infrastructure is maintained doesn’t impact their everyday life. What does a Water person care if something floods? It’s not that Wendi McLendon-Covey’s Gale, Wade’s supervisor, doesn’t care for Ember or other citizens of Element City, it’s that she has other issues to address. Yet, it’s hard not to ignore the fact that Gale, upon learning what the issue is, doesn’t do more to ensure the broken wall is fixed simply because the civil engineers are frustrated that Ember and Wade used up some of their materials to stop the flooding they discovered.
The film doesn’t hide the fact that there’re microaggresions on both sides with Bernie presuming all Water people are denigrating individuals and Wade’s family making unintentionally racist remarks regarding Ember’s language fluency and gifts as an artist (the last one reeking of privileged perspective); however, the script also makes sure to highlight the importance of community, the necessity of working together in order to survive. Without Ember’s abilities, the number of times the Lumens would’ve had to pay someone to replace their glass would be immeasurable. Without Gale’s abilities, Ember might never have been able to see a rare Vivisteria since the garden was flooded. Without Wade’s abilities, the Lumen’s sacred blue flame from home would’ve been washed away in the climatic flood. There are several moments in which each of the characters, intentionally or otherwise, demonstrates the good and the bad that comes from cultural segregation, personal bias, and privilege making for a rich textual experience that only compliments the love story that surrounds it.
For this home release review, Walt Disney provided a digital copy of the film. As such, I can’t speak to the physical packaging, the on-disc presentation, or which materials are included. What’s listed below was accessible using both MoviesAnywhere and iTunes, so I suspect they are going to be the primary materials you’ll find on any other release. While one can appreciate visiting with Up’s (2009) Carl in the short film Carl’s Date that accompanied the theatrical release of Elemental, for me, it’s the rest of the bonus features that make snagging this worth it. There are three featurettes, totaling roughly 34 minutes, which explore the development of the central two characters, the city itself, and the experiences of the filmmakers that informed the story. Like with other Pixar and Disney Animation releases, home viewers are invited to learn both about the technical approach used to bring the film to life (such as the process of determining the rules for how translucent to make Wade and when) and the significance of the architecture in Element City. It doesn’t get as far into things as to outwardly discuss what it means to build a city *without* all of its residents in mind, but it’s there on the periphery.
Additionally, you can enjoy a feature-length commentary track from Sohn and several members of the Elemental technical team, and five deleted scenes with an overall introduction from Sohn, as well as introductions for each scene from a specific member of the filmmaking team. With deleted scenes, there’s a chance to see what might have been regarding a film and, frankly, I’m ecstatic that the plotline making Wade’s mother Brook (voiced by Catherine O’Hara) the villain of the film was taken out. Not every film requires a physical villain when cultural divide or systemic inequity works just fine. Besides, there’s something far crueler about the bureaucracy of Element City, this shining beacon of community and culture, failing Fire Town than having it all be because of personal prejudice.
With the first teaser released, I expected something akin to Inside Out (2015) meets Cars (2006). I didn’t expect this to possess Turning Red-level (2022) depth in a Soul-like (2020) package. The performances from Lewis (The Half of It) and Athie (Unicorn Store) are incredible, the animation is brilliant in presentation (the flames of the Lumen family are particularly moving in design execution), and Thomas Newman’s (Wall-E; 1917) score compliments it all. Together, with the thematic elements and execution of the ideas, Elemental goes beyond tear-inducing, reaching soul-shaking. Absolutely the surprise film of 2023.
To learn more about the making of Elemental, be sure to check out:
Elemental Special Features*:
- Elemental Filmmaker Commentary – Join director Peter Sohn, supe tech Sanjay Bakshi, supervising animator Mike Venturini, and directing animator Gwendelyn Enderoglu as they provide insight into the making of this remarkable animated feature while you watch it. (1:41:28)
- Carl’s Date – Written and directed by Academy Award® nominee and Emmy® Award winner Bob Peterson and produced by Kim Collins, this all-new short, “Carl’s Date,” finds Carl reluctantly agreeing to go on a date with a lady friend —but admittedly with no idea how dating works these days. Ever the helpful friend, Dug steps in to calm Carl’s pre-date jitters and offer some tried-and-true tips for making friends — if you’re a dog. “Carl’s Date” opened in theaters in front of Disney and Pixar’s “Elemental.”
- Ember and Wade – Take a deeper look at the development of main characters Ember and Wade, from early designs to final effects, and learn how the complex work of the technical and character teams brought these characters to life. (10:15)
- Next Stop: Element City – Explore how Element City is built to accommodate its different inhabitants. Director Peter Sohn and crew members share insights about the evolution of the designed world, as well as some of the research that inspired its unique look. (10:13)
- Paths to Pixar: The Immigrant Experience – Hear from first-generation filmmakers on the Elemental crew as they share their journeys to Pixar. Discover how Elemental’s real-world themes of sacrifice and identity, amongst many others, reflect or diverge from their own lived experiences. (14:01)
- Five (5) Deleted Scenes (21:22)
- Director Peter Sohn introduces five scenes that are storyboarded, set to music, timed, and voiced, but are not included in the final version of Elemental. (0:38)
- Intro Ember – An alternate opening in which our hero Ember helps a newly immigrated Fire family navigate through, and acclimate to, Element City. Scene introduced by director Peter Sohn. (5:52)
- Mom Rejects Wade – Ember’s traditional parents learn that she’s enamored with watery Wade…and it doesn’t go well. Scene introduced by story supervisor Jason Katz. (2:50)
- Dante Challenge – In an attempt to keep Ember apart from Wade, Bernie tasks her with finding a place to live for newcomer Dante, who Wade finds himself rather enamored with. Scene introduced by story artist Nira Liu. (3:50)
- Brook Dinner – Ember joins Wade for dinner at his home, in this abandoned storyline in which Wade’s mother, Brook, is revealed to be the villain diverting water into Firetown. Scene introduced by story artist Anna Benedict. (4:04)
- Beach Proposal – Sharing a tender moment on the beach, Ember and Wade propose marriage to each other. Scene introduced by story artists Yung-Han Chang and Le Tang. (4:08)
*bonus features vary by product and retailer
Available on digital August 15th, 2023.
Available on Disney+ September 13th, 2023.
Available on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, and DVD September 26th, 2023.
For more information, head to the official Pixar Elemental webpage.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.