By: Adam Freed
Disney and Pixar met, fell in love, got married, thrived, fell on hard times, divorced, started life anew on their own, only to realize that life was never better than when it had been shared together. The Disney and Pixar art that has emerged in the second stanza of their relationship is far more reflective, appreciative and grounded than when the studios were young and carefree. Recent iterations of the more mature and contemplative union of the animated giants have been met with mixed reviews, and although strong, less than gravitational box office returns. The most recent offspring of the rekindled Disney Pixar flame is Elemental, a delicately animated immigrant / opposites attract story told from the distinct perspective of long-time Pixar collaborator, writer, director and second generation American, Peter Sohn (Wall-E, The Incredibles, Ratatouille).
The world building within Elemental is nowhere near as immersive as some prior Pixar efforts, particularly Ratatouille and Wall-E, two films in which audiences are submerged into environments that seem to have always existed merely beyond the reach of personal experience. Where Elemental is shy on immersion, it shines in both theme and character. Second generation Element City citizen, Ember, weighs the precarious balance between her father’s immigrant dream, his store, and a life in pursuit of her individual talents and desires. To complicate this all too familiar story of generational cultural custodianship is Ember’s burgeoning love for an outsider by the name of Wade. The complication is that in Element City, riddled with segregation and unfair cultural misunderstandings, the four elements Earth, Wind, Water and Fire rarely coexist, in particular Water and Fire for obvious reasons. The idea of a relationship between Wade (water) and Ember (fire) approaches the territory of Sharks dating Jets or vice versa. What makes the Disney and Pixar partnership sing is the ability to paint animated characters with human struggles from which children can feel, understand, and learn.
Despite a slow start, the film’s second act springs to life with the introduction of the forbidden love story as Wade, with heart wide open, pursues the love of his life, only to realize that dating outside of their elemental races feels nearly impossible for Ember who places her role as a daughter and therefore carrier of the cultural flame, above any personal love story she could ever aspire to live. In what may be one of the more touching animated displays of romantic longing ever captured, Peter Sohn expertly calls back to Spike Lee’s powerful social commentary on the hardships of interracial love, Jungle Fever (1991). Although Lee’s film wasn’t created with a young audience in mind, Elemental allows children to understand that love is love and even though struggle may ensue, even fire and water can find family with one another if that is what the heart desires.
Some of the adult critics may feel that Elemental lacks the attributes that made the original Disney and Pixar nuptials a storybook romance. Children, who tend to see films with far more open minds and hearts, will likely absorb a meaningful tale of overcoming generational fears in pursuit of authentic lives, seeking acceptance and true love, despite what their grandparents may think. If the studio power couple chooses this to be their new direction, which is to wade in waist deep waters of box office expectation, yet share messages of tremendous depth and meaning for global youth, then the world can only hope that this second chance at love is one that lasts a lifetime.