On an unseasonably warm April day in Toronto, Disney invited critics and industry folks to the the TIFF Bell Lightbox to screen four scenes from its forthcoming Pixar release, Elemental. What they unveiled was promising. What was not shared (i.e. most of the movie) was concerning….
At this point in its history, Disney badly needs a hit. Approximately zero percent of movie lovers liked – or even saw – its latest film Strange World, and even its reliable Pixar Animation Studios is in a slump, with 2022’s Lightyear underwhelming critics and grossing a mere $118 million dollars at the US and Canadian Box Office on a $200 million budget. Suffice it to say, Walt Disney executives – and Wall Street investors – badly want Elemental to be a smash. Unfortunately, the film’s fate is up-in-the-air, because two months ahead of its June 16th release date, it’s still incomplete.
While I cannot tell you how Elemental hangs together (no one can!), I can share that Elemental tells the story of a world populated by, well, personified elements. Our protagonist, Ember (Leah Lewis), is the child of newcomers who operate a convenience store. Ember, fittingly, has a fiery personality that makes her prone to butting heads with customers at the store. She also enjoys a close-knit family life, working alongside her parents.
Then Ember meets Wade (who is made of water and voiced by Mamoudou Athie). She’s tempestuous but Wade is empathetic and always on the verge of tears. Soon, romantic comedy sparks – literally – fly! But can these two opposites make it work without, um, killing each other? Complicating an already complicated matter, the dying wish of Ember’s grandmother was for her granddaughter to marry someone made of fire. And Ember’s mother seems intent on honouring this wish!
The idea of a Pixar romantic comedy is intriguing. In the four scenes I screened, Elemental feels like a joyful – and surprisingly realistic for an animated movie starring fire and water – portrayal of how falling in love can make you feel like you’re out of element.
Director Peter Sohn has said Elemental is inspired by his own experiences as the child of Korean newcomers who started a vegetable store in New York City. And indeed, much of the narrative parallels his own life. Like Ember, Sohn’s grandmother also expressed her wish for him to marry within his diasporic community. Sohn, however, fell in love with – and married – a woman who does not come from a Korean background. Sohn insists, however, that Elemental is not a vilification of newcomer parents. Rather, he insists it is ultimately a story about “thanking our parents.”
The idea of fire and water falling in love in an allegorical ode to interracial marriage is appealing to me as someone who has been in an interracial marriage herself for four years. Representation matters, and film and TV often depict couples who come from different cultural backgrounds as doomed. If this movie is good, I could easily picture myself playing it a hundred times for my daughter, who watches Turning Red at least once a week.
As an added bonus, Wade’s mother is portrayed by the great Catherine O’Hara, whom Sohn refers to as “the Goddess of comedy.” I only saw scraps of the film. But from those, it’s clear her performance as a loving, humanoid waterfall figure is fantastic! Also, it’s always lovely to see a Canadian connection on screen.
So, will Elemental‘s story bring all the feels when we see the whole thing? I hope so! I even think so, but I don’t know. And that’s the problem with perfecting a film until the last possible moment. My review is enthusiastic, but incomplete
What I can say for sure is that the animation in Elemental is breathtaking. The world created for this movie, where talking tiny trees brag about sprouting blossoms and folks made of water live in apartments that look like log flumes is inventive. And the animations is flat-out stunning. As Sohn told us at the Lightbox, Pixar’s “art inspires the technology and technology inspires the art.” And how gorgeous the end product appears!
I cannot yet say whether I wholeheartedly endorse Elemental, but I’m very excited to see more….