Director – Peter Sohn – 2023 – US – Cert. PG – 109m
Can a romance between a girl of fire and a boy of water succeed in a city populated by beings of earth, air, fire and water where entrenched separate ethnic identities run deep? – latest Pixar / Disney animation is out in UK cinemas on Friday, July 7th
In search of a better life, a young fire people couple Bernie (voice: Ronnie Del Carmen) and Cinder (voice: Shila Ommi) move to Element City, which is populated by not only fire people but also earth people, air people and water people. The couple find a cheap, rundown place to rent and Bernie turns it into The Fireplace, a store selling all manner of fire products from the fire people’s culture. Cinder gives birth to a girl Ember who grows into a twentysomething (voice: Leah Lewis). The plan is that when Ember is ready, she should take over the running of the store and let Bernie peacefully retire. Managing shop customers can be challenging, however, and while Ember is good at most aspects of the job, she has one flaw that lets her down – her fiery temper: she loses it with the most difficult customers.
On the day that Bernie has left Ember in charge to run a big sale, things go horribly wrong when water bursts from the plumbing to flood the premises. Worse still, city employee Wade Ripple (voice: Mamoudou Athie), a water person, looks at the situation and decides the shop needs to be shut down. Ember tries to catch him before the end of the working day to stop him putting his physical, written report into the system, but is too late to prevent him sending it through a network of internal tubes first to minor bureaucrat Fern Grouchwood (voice: Joe Pera), an earth person, then to his boss, Gale Cumulus (voice: Wendi McLendon-Covey), an air person.
Ember now is faced with explaining all this to her dad and somehow preventing the shop he has spent his life building from being shut down by the city. Her life is made infinitely more complicated by the fact that she and Wade have fallen for each other, which is tricky since fire and water are hardly suited to one another… The unwritten rule of Element City is that the four ethnic, element groups don’t mix, but socialise and romance among their own kind.
On one level, this is a retelling of the familiar, romantic drama in which two members of a couple come from opposite sides of the tracks, bolstered up considerably by unique and compelling characterisations. However, instead of dividing the two couples into familiar, rival ethnicities, e,g, white working class and Puerto Ricans in West Side Story, the animated film designs its characters as belonging to separate, ethnicities aligned with the four elements. The earth people look like trees, branches or vegetation, the air people fluffy clouds, the water people giant walking drops of water and the fire people fire. Fire itself, rather than on fire.
Given the task of designing this city and its four elements of ethnic occupants, Pixar / Disney’s artists and animators have gone all out in terms of invention, with stunning results. Trains pass around the city on elevated waterways, splashing people below as they go past. Much of the tale takes place within the red-hued area of Firetown, where all the fire people live, and its occupants prove strangely compelling to watch, perhaps because the ideas of flesh and fire are so seemingly incompatible that one marvels at anthropomorphised characters made of fire. So too with the water people, who are essentially impossible, walking globules of water. The fluffy, pink, cloudlike air people who resemble candy floss and the vegetation-based earth people are arguably less interesting, so it’s no real surprise that the film had chosen fire and water for the elements of its two star-crossed lovers.
Ember’s mother Cinder does a nice sideline in romantic fortune-telling designed to predict whether potential couples are compatible, and is as surprised as she is delighted when her rituals suggest that her daughter and Wade are a perfect match. However, convincing Bernie that the water boy is right for his fire daughter proves an altogether more daunting task. The audience is treated alongside Ember with a visit to Wade’s water family, including Wade’s feisty trained architect mother Brooke (voice: Catherine O’Hara) and a trip to the water park where Ember is protected by being placed inside a bubble to view a world very different to everything she knows.
In the end, the film is a plea for tolerance of others different from ourselves because they hail from a different culture, and the idea to couch that in terms of not recognisable, different, existing ethic groups, but four new ones based on the four elements is a good one, perfectly suited to CG animation, the medium in which Pixar has built its considerable reputation, and realised with consummate skill by all concerned.
In short, while the story and relationships are hardly groundbreaking, the visual concept is brave and pulled off with hugely inventive panache. Being Disney, it’s pushed as a kids or family movie, which it is, yet it’s equally effective as a date movie. A pleasing, thoroughly charming and, ultimately, hugely inventive and visually remarkable film.
Elemental is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, July 7th.