(Photo courtesy of Vox) “‘Elemental’ is the latest film from Disney”.
In the post-pandemic world of box-office recovery, studios are still trying to keep their heads above water. Especially for Disney, who has seen box-office and critical disappointments with their latest animated releases. But their newest film “Elemental,” which dropped on Disney+ on Sept. 13 after a successful theatrical run, marks a major win for the studio.
Set in a world of elemental inhabitants — earth, fire, water and air — the film stars Leah Lewis as fire element Ember Lumen and Mamoudou Athie as water element Wade Ripple. After Ember accidentally wreaks havoc in her father’s shop by starting a water leak, city inspector Wade gets sucked into a pipe and pours right into Ember’s life. The two embark on a whirlwind adventure to save Ember’s family-run shop from being shut down by the city, sparking a heartfelt romance in the process.
The film opens with a flashback of Ember’s parents immigrating to Element City after a natural disaster in their native homeland, Fireland, destroys their home. They make the difficult decision to leave their family against their wishes. This beautiful representation of migrant families building their lives in a new home makes it clear that the filmmakers took gentle care in crafting this scene. The emotions in this scene run high, reflecting the reality of many in the United States and also the reality of the film’s director, Peter Sohn, who has attributed his own experiences as an immigrant as an inspiration for the storyline.
But what makes “Elemental” special is its focus on the family dynamic between Ember and her parents, where much of her inner turmoil is rooted in living up to their expectations and dreams, even if their dreams are not her own. This also causes conflict with Wade, who comes from a wealthy family and has a hard time understanding why Ember is so quick to put her own aspirations aside to please her parents. The film shows immense sophistication in the way it tackles tough subjects such as these, standing out in Disney’s library as a stellar example of telling stories that are so often misrepresented in the media landscape.
Even with the film’s strong plot and character dialogue, it does suffer under the sheer weight of its story. The film takes ambitious directions in telling both a romance and a touching tale of a daughter of immigrant parents trying to make her way in the world. With a run time of an hour and 40 minutes, it can feel like some of the film could have been more fleshed out with a few added scenes. For example, Wade and Ember begin as strangers turned acquaintances on a quest to save Ember’s father’s shop, but they suddenly begin developing a romance around halfway through the film. Though the romance fits well by the time the credits roll, it feels slightly jarring as a viewer who was emotionally invested in the storyline about Ember’s family struggles.
The animation of all the elemental beings is stellar. While Disney’s Pixar has aimed for hyper-realism for animation styles in recent years, they have found the perfect balance. In one particular scene, Wade sneaks into Ember’s family’s shop by hiding in the water of a flower vase. All you can see of Wade in the water is his googly eyes, making for a silly laugh-out-loud moment and clever use of the physics of the world in which the characters live. Wade’s cartoon eyes make for heartfelt moments of cuteness, and his sympathetic personality is the perfect opposition to Ember’s fiery spirit.
While the animation contributes to moments of humor, the textures and linework cannot be overlooked. Whether it be rushing water in a canal or Ember’s flames in constant motion as she runs or sways, the art direction is nothing short of extraordinary. The film is sure to remind the viewer of the world in which the film is set, taking every opportunity for each character to use their unique abilities. It’s deeply satisfying to watch how Wade and Ember’s respective element traits behave on their own, but it’s also satisfying seeing how their traits work with one another. Wade is known to boil when he gets just a tad too close to heat, and Ember often uses her hands to mold and shape glass.
“Elemental” marks a new turnaround for Disney. Being one of the few original movies the studio has released in recent years among a long lineup of remakes and sequels, it will likely set the foundation for more new and compelling stories to be greenlit by the company.