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Pixar’s ‘Elemental’: Where Immigrants Discover Unexpected Magic Happens When Incompatible Elements Come Together

Pixar’s ‘Elemental’: Where Immigrants Discover Unexpected Magic Happens When Incompatible Elements Come Together

  • The narrative reminded me of how my father threatened to disinherit me when I left the family home in India for the U.S., and eventually, was proud of me and shared my success with all his friends.

Recently, I attended the family-and-friends premier of “Elemental” in the theater ensconced in the Steve Jobs building in Emeryville, California. It was quite an honor, courtesy of a friend who is a cinematographer at Pixar. The film is mainly about an immigrant couple arriving in Element City. 

The cityscape of “Elemental” reminds me of New York City and also resembles Disney’s “Zootopia” but instead of conflicting animal species, “Elemental” features anthropomorphized elements of earth, air,  and water who live in their own suburbs with appropriate social interactions. 

Only “fire” people are not welcome in Element City, so they are ousted to their own land, called Fireland. But in order to travel through Element City, fire people have to be cloaked and carry umbrellas to protect them from the constantly splashing trains that run on water, (I wonder why the trains could not run on tracks or air?) since drenching is sine qua non of death by water. It almost seems like the three elements are ganging up against fire that is literally labeled “too hot” to mingle.

As the story goes Bernie (Ronnie del Carmen) and Cinder (Shila Ommi) are forced to leave their ancestral home to the outskirts and start a small “7 Eleven” style convenience store that they hope to pass on to Ember (Leah Lewis), who is not quite adept at serving customers. Not only do the “fire couple” face sadness of separation and sacrifice to start a new life but they also have a relatable burden that immigrant parents bear to protect the future of their children. 

Ember is a typical “ABCD’ type kid with suppressed aspirations. But she tries to conform to please her father. On the day of the Red Dot sale at the store, Ember is overwhelmed by demanding customers and she goes down to the basement to blow her fuse. This outburst causes a water pipe to burst! The water brings fear and doom to Ember’s world but along with the catastrophe, her Romeo Wade (Mamoudou Athie) drips into her life. Wade is a rueful city inspector with a fetching surfy water curl on his head. Wade is forced to give her family’s shop tickets for leaky pipes but Ember is determined to get the tickets canceled since she blames herself for losing her temper and causing the pipes to burst. 

Ember is a typical “ABCD’ type kid with suppressed aspirations. But she tries to conform to please her father.

But it appears that the water supply to Fireland was canceled a long time back, so the duo learns that the leak that is threatening the shop and the entire Fireland is not Ember’s responsibility. Ember and Wade get closer trying to find a solution. Although their attraction is not “love at first sight” the conflict gives them an opportunity to learn about their differences. They plead their case to the city utilities, go for a ball game together, find the “causative” leak upstream, bridge it with tempered glass and impress each other with colorful rainbow displays.  

Even Ember’s mother who is a “love psychic” discovers that the two are dangerously in love. To drive home the theme of different elements, there are earth people who appear as sidekicks to Ember, presenting her with flowers from their armpits and air people who dominate Wade’s world, and morph from skepticism to helpfulness. Elemental’s take on the predictable tension that ensues on meeting “the parents” is hilarious!  Wade’s family lives in a luxurious high rise and is poles apart from Ember’s working-class parents, but after a few ice breakers, they warm up to  Ember, unlike Ember’s father who gives Wade the fiery third degree in his establishment. 

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“Elemental” is polished and pretty with Pixar’s exceptional cinematography, breathtaking artwork, and stunning 3D animation. The film’s rainbow-colored visuals are truly vibrant and the meticulously hand-crafted landscapes that the team of artists has created ferry the viewers into the characters’ world. The lava lamps, hot ember cookies and flaming hair ranging from yellow to Siena to crimson. The fluid/fiery movements of water and fire people to the ever-changing facial expressions on Ember and Wade’s faces are impressive. This and the seamless integration of 3D animation adds depth and immersion to the storytelling. But the storyline loses to make an impact by working on too many issues: The immigrant story. Racism. Generation gap. Class gap.

My favorite Pixar movies of all time are “Ratatouille,” “Up,” “Coco,” and “Finding Nemo.” I watch these over again with kids and grandkids. Recently I also enjoyed “Inside Out” and “Soul.” But short films like “Bao,” “Auntie Edna,” and “Lava” are more impactful and transcendental. Watch out for another short film that Pixar offers with “Elemental.” I am blown away by the craft, dedication and incredible teamwork that is part of Pixar culture. I hope to meet the director Peter Sohn and shake his hand for the incredible creative genius he brings into our world.

“Elemental” opened in theaters on Friday, June 16, just in time for Father’s Day. It is a film that will resonate with all ages, and the final message is imbued with hope, courage, determination, and unexpected connections while honoring our unique cultural heritage. “Elemental” shows us that we all have the power of overcoming obstacles.  Unexpected magic happens when seemingly incompatible elements come together. Perhaps there will be a sequel to Ember and Wade’s happily ever journey as they discover to live harmoniously despite their differences.

With one foot in Huntsville, Alabama, the other in her birth home India and a heart steeped in humanity, writing is a contemplative practice for Monita Soni. She has published hundreds of poems, movie reviews, book critiques, essays and contributed to combined literary works. Her two books are My Light Reflections and Flow through My Heart. You can hear her commentaries on Sundial Writers Corner WLRH 89.3FM.

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