There’s a meme that takes aim at the fundamentally repetitive structure of Pixar movies. The meme correctly recognises that nearly every Pixar film boils down to the following question: “What if ______ had feelings?” You can fill in the blank with words such as toys, monsters, cars, dinosaurs – the list goes on and on – and by the end you’ll have gotten the entirety of Pixar’s output. (The funniest one, by the way, is for Inside Out: “What if feelings had feelings?”)
Elemental feels like the cherry on top of this meme, the moment when the concept gets stretched to the point of ridiculousness from which there is no return: “What if elements had feelings?” It’s probably what an aspiring screenwriter in the Pixar family would pitch as a joke.
But just when you think Pixar has reached its moment of greatest self-parody, they hit it out of the park once again. Peter Sohn‘s film may indeed have familiar elements, so to speak – the most noteworthy is the basic structure of a non-Pixar movie in the Disney family, Zootopia – but it’s also got one thing you’ve never seen in a Pixar movie: a genuine, gosh-darn romantic love story.
Because the best love stories feature a Romeo & Juliet-style conflict to keep the lovers apart, this love story is about a fire girl named Ember Lumen (voice of Leah Lewis) and a water boy named Wade Ripple (voice of Mamoudou Athie). They both live in, or just outside, Element City, an only slightly less utopic utopia than the one in Zootopia, where water elements, fire elements, air elements and earth elements all live together, embodied in the form of creatures with arms and legs, about the size of humans. You wouldn’t say it’s harmony they live together in, exactly, because everyone knows that “elements don’t mix.” This isn’t just a parable about racism, though of course it is that. Literally, if a fire creature and a water creature touch, one of the two might get extinguished or vaporised. Kind of puts a damper, so to speak, on a budding romance.
Ember is meant to be inheriting the shop of her immigrant parents, who moved to the big city from Fire Land to pursue dreams of selling fire-related tchotchkes and food novelties to fellow fire creatures. (Try the coal nuts, which Ember and her dad make by crushing logs into concentrated coals that they serve like a basket of chips.) But Ember’s got a temper that keeps her from connecting with the customers. I mean, when it’s buy one sparkler, get the second one free, you have to actually buy the first sparkler.
It’s while trying to suppress one of her episodes of frustration, which express themselves in localised mini supernovas, that she bursts some of the pipes in the shop’s basement, letting in the dreaded water flowing through them. And in this case, inadvertently letting in Wade, who got swept up in a flash flood. Unfortunately, Wade’s a city inspector and he notices much of the shop is comprised of repairs conducted without a permit. He’s going to come around to Ember’s side, of course, but not until after he’s already submitted the code violations, setting in motion a limited timeframe for the shop to be shut down.
You’d expect Elemental to get sidetracked by its many elemental puns – a movie they see is called Tide and Prejudice, putting a rather fine point on the underlying themes – because that sort of thing is also a speciality of prospective Pixar screenwriters. It’s a relief, then, to see just how earnestly and unashamedly it focuses in on the romance between its two star-crossed leads. Unlike Zootopia, Elemental doesn’t really get into the larger sociopolitical issues of the city. It’s content to concentrate on the localised irreconcilable differences between two characters who meet on a level that goes beyond their literal chemical compatibility.
For viewers of a certain disposition, it may also be a relief to see a romance where it isn’t repeatedly stated that a woman, or in this case a female fire creature, don’t need no man to be happy. It’s a quaint but sort of restorative reminder that romance is not dead just because we want to give previously underserved characters better agency.
The animation here is stellar. The character design in particular stands out, as the different types of creatures – air and earth get less screen time, but they’re there too – all have distinct designs that make them alike with their kind. These expressionistic characters are set against backgrounds that strive for, and achieve, the level of realism that Pixar has continued to pursue in its fourth decade of existence.
It’s almost beside the point to mention the animation, because at this point, we are safe to assume that anything Pixar makes is going to look great. Everyone knows that Pixar’s not-so-secret weapon is the waterworks it produces in the third act, and romantics in particular won’t be disappointed here. The act of crying rather cheekily factors into the story, as the overly sensitive Wade – and the rest of his family, possibly the rest of his species – are given to spouting fountains of tears from their watery eyes when faced with something emotional. Whether individual viewers get to that place themselves is another matter, but Wade’s crying does factor into the film’s denouement.
It may seem that with all this crying, Wade is pretty wet – sorry – but he actually really grows on you. He and Ember each complete something about the other, and the enthusiastic vocal performances of Athie and Lewis serve their character arcs well. Ember may not eschew the idea of romantic love like today’s heroines are supposed to, but she kicks plenty of ass in other ways. She gets around the city on her motorcycle, her flaming face dragging slightly behind her in the wind, and deftly dodges obstacles that might end her. Of course, her biggest obstacle is her sense of obligation to run the family business, when all she wants to do is blow awesome glass sculptures.
The mixing of elements creates plenty of opportunities for Pixar to shine with its “wow” animation moments. If the screenwriters can dream it up, the animators can make it a reality. The thing that really wows about this late-stage Pixar is that it’s still figuring out how to give us something – well, not new exactly, but immensely satisfying nonetheless. And in exposing children to what is essentially a story of romantic love, Pixar also still proves itself capable of taking risks.
Elemental is currently playing in cinemas.