Elemental: Preserving the Flame

Directed by Peter Sohn, Elemental follows Ember (Leah Lewis) a fiery young woman who lives in Element City, a world where residents of fire, water, earth and air co-exist. The daughter of immigrants Cinder and Bernie (Shila Ammi and Ronnie del Carmen), Ember works hard in their family’s store and hopes to take over for her father one day. However, her life is changed when she comes into contact with Wade (Mamoudou Athie), a sappy man of water who is forced to shut down her father’s business. As they work together to solve the problem, a relationship between them begins to blossom, begging the question if fire and water can ever truly mix.

Without question, Elemental is an absolute delight from start to finish. Funny and heartfelt, this story feels like classic Pixar. Once again, they’ve created a world that feels playful and relatable yet carries an emotional core that resonates deeply. 

As a matter of fact, it may be their best film in years.

Backed by phenomenal animation, Elemental is a visual treat. In a recent visit to Toronto, Sohn indicated that Elemental used over 120,000 computers in its animation processing and every terabyte is seen onscreen. This is a world filled with subtle details designed to feel authentic to the elements themselves. For example, Ember’s character is not simply a person covered in flame but is meant to beflames. This subtle distinction means that her body is in constant motion, just as a match never stays the same. At the same time, Wade’s water-based physique ebs and flows constantly, always adapting to the reflection of light around him. These sorts of details are incredibly difficult to master yet it is done so effortlessly that it will likely go unappreciated by the average viewer.

If anything, Elemental’s greatest obstacle to making an impact lies in the form of a spider. With the hype surrounding Spider-Verse only two weeks ago, Elemental’s release feels as though it runs the risk of getting overshadowed. However, this would be entirely unfortunate. Both films are high quality yet take entirely different approaches their animation and storytelling. Whereas Spider-Verse takes a frenetic approach with its visuals, Elemental feels more traditional in its animation style. There’s a simply a charm and beauty about this film that equals Sony’s achievement in an entirely different manner.

At its core, Elemental is a story about the immigrant experience as director Pete Sohn has spoken openly about the film’s connection with his own parents’ journey. (In fact, the film is dedicated to them during the credits.) To him, this is a personal project which speaks out of his love for them and the sacrifices that they made in coming to America. As a result, Elemental shows the struggles inherent to beginning your life in a place where you’re not entirely welcome. Even though they are met with smiles at the customs office, Bernie and Cinder’s ‘Firish’ names are quickly erased. Rooms are available for rent, but their differences are not accepted by potential landlords. 

And, most importantly, Elemental City is not built to be a safe space for them. 

Primarily designed as a place for water and flora, people of fire live under the constant threat of being extinguished. As a result, they find themselves creating their own community of people who draw from their heritage together and try to stay out of the way of the rest of the world. 

In this way, Elemental takes on a new light. This is not merely a story where ‘everyone is asked to get along’ but a tale meant to draw attention to the struggles of those who step into an unwelcome world backed by the dream of starting a new life. As Ember and Wade grow in their relationship, the film dips its toe into conversations surrounding the nature of privilege and racial inequality. Some characters carry deliberate hatred for other elements while others reveal the subtle stereotypes that they keep through awkward humour. (“I had no idea that you were so smoking,“ Wade’s mother says to a visibly uncomfortable Ember.) 

But Elemental does not try to solve all the problems of race. Instead, it gives voice to the stories of people that are feeling displaced by the world around them. Proud of their heritage, Ember’s parents seek to preserve their past by keeping their blue flame burning. At the same time, Ember burns to honour the sacrifices that they made on behalf of their family. At every possible moment, Sohn ensures that his characters maintain a deep love for their history and culture, even as some attempt to chart a new course.

In the end, while Elemental’s charm lies with its rom-com style, its whip-smart script speaks to some of the deepest issues faced by this generation. This is a simple story with complex roots yet Sohn brings both to light in the best of ways. 

Elemental is available now via Digital, and will be released in 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray and DVD on September 26.

Leave a Reply