This article was written in collaboration with contributing writer Kattie Corte, and contains spoilers for Pixar’s “Elemental.”
Illustration courtesy of Disney/Pixar.
Pixar is one of the most iconic animation studios in the world. With such classics including “Toy Story,” “Cars” and “WALL-E” under their belt, Pixar is well accustomed to creating stories that not only look unique, but tell a story that’s guaranteed to tug at the heartstrings and hit home.
Pixar’s latest film “Elemental” does just that.
In fact, it does so much more, but it hasn’t been talked about widely. The film released on June 16 making $400 million at the worldwide box office, which is well over its $200 million budget, during a month that was packed to the brim with highly anticipated movies, including “No Hard Feelings,” “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts,” “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” and “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.”
As a result, “Elemental” seemed to be overshadowed by these box office draws. The film’s light was dimmed even further by the advertising, which failed to demonstrate its clever symbolism of immigrant families’ setting roots in a new world and the challenges they face.
The trailer depicts a forbidden love story between Ember and Wade, the Romeo & Juliet of Element City. Ember is part of the fire element community while Wade is a water element, and as emphasized in the trailer and throughout the film: “Elements can’t mix.”
While forbidden love is a main focus of the story, “Elemental” has so much more to say.
“Elemental” begins with the journey of Ember’s parents immigrating to Element City from their native home Fire Land, leaving behind their family and friends to seek a better life. Ember’s father, Bernie, was forced to build a home for himself and his wife, Cinder, after they were unable to find other elements who would accept them or a home that could accommodate them. Eventually they open a shop called “The Fireplace” that sells authentic food and products from Fire Land. This shop is an amalgamation of Bernie and Cinder’s efforts to make a life for themselves in Element City, while also staying connected to their cultural roots.
Prior to the arrival of Embers family, Element City only had spaces and accommodations for the water, air and earth elements because they’re not considered as dangerous as the fire element. The film heavily implies that Ember’s family are the first of their kind to arrive in Element City, where their shop becomes a landmark creating the beginnings of a fire community.
One day, Bernie hopes to retire and pass down the shop to his daughter Ember. Ember is a metaphor for children of first-generation immigrants, as she is incredibly loyal and grateful to her family for leaving their home and former life behind in order to give her a better future. Therefore, she believes it is only right for her to sacrifice her own needs and desires for the needs of her family.
However this form of thinking inevitably puts a lot of pressure on her especially when she begins to fall for Wade. Her whole life she has been told “elements don’t mix” and she fears that a future with Wade or becoming independent from her family and their shop will break their hearts.
These next few paragraphs were written by Kattie Corte reflecting on her personal experiences and thoughts on the film.
In a scene in which she opens up to Wade on the pressure she feels in her daily life she says, “How do you pay a sacrifice that big? It all feels like a burden” but she immediately takes it back feeling guilty saying, “How can I say that? I’m a bad daughter.”
This is the first time we see Ember be vulnerable and express how she genuinely feels. For most of the film she’s fiery, always standing her ground and not allowing herself to feel her emotions. But this time we see her fire literally die down as she cries and tells Wade she feels like she needs to live up to her parent’s expectations because they’ve sacrificed so much to give her a better life.
As fire is the most volatile of the elements, Ember and her family experience xenophobia, microaggressions and racism on a number of occasions.
Upon arriving in Element City, we see her parents’ names being changed because no one understands or speaks their native language and when Ember visits Wade’s home one of his family members comments on how great her English sounds, to which she replies “Yeah, it’s amazing what talking in the same language your entire life can do.”
The fire elements are also segregated from the rest of the city and have to tread much more carefully around other elements and the city, a metaphor for immigrant families having more obstacles to face than the average family including language barriers, struggles finding a job and in some cases, being undocumented.
Pixar's #Elemental is wonderful. A beautiful fable about the immigrant journey, wrapped up in a tender (& fiery) romcom. Pixar continues to excell with human stories that hit hard, make us laugh & cry. Loved it MUCH more than expected. A TOTALLY different movie than advertised. pic.twitter.com/jdYWUL2SqM
— Dave Lee (@daveleedwnundr) June 13, 2023
As a child of immigrant parents who identifies with the character of Ember so deeply, a scene that really resonated with me is when Ember and her father visit Garden Central Station.
She tells Wade that it had always been her dream to see the Vivisteria tree that sprouts beautiful flowers under any elemental conditions, including fire. However, when she and her father arrive they see a sign that says fire elements are banned and are stopped by security. Her father argues with the security for being so unfair as other elements pass by them telling them to go back to Fire Land.
This scene broke me and I couldn’t help but feel for Ember and understand her anger and pain. I had a very similar experience with my father.
I was a little girl when I first experienced racism — when I knew what it was like to be hated for simply existing. Similarly to Ember, I watched my father try to explain himself with his broken English to a police officer who did not care because he viewed us as less than scum, looking down on us and making fun of my father.
But it was so heartwarming to see how Wade reacted to this story, much like my boyfriend. He began to cry and validated Ember’s feelings telling her “You must have been so scared.” This scene pretty much cemented that these characters were literally my boyfriend and I because growing up, I have always been expected to be strong, independent and not let my parents’ sacrifices be in vain. I had never had someone comfort me and tell me that experience must have been so terrifying and you were only a kid.
The remainder of the article was co-written by both Joseph Caruso and Kattie Corte.
Various aspects of “Elemental” made the both of us feel seen, not just as people but as a couple.
Wade and Ember fit our relationship dynamic to a suspiciously accurate degree, with Wade being a compassionate man in tune with his emotions, while Ember is a fiercely independent person and the daughter of first-generation immigrants. Wade doesn’t always understand Ember and her culture, but he’s so loving and sympathetic. Most importantly, he admires her and is in constant awe of her beauty and her courage.
Our dynamic is not one that we often see so specifically or accurately depicted in media, so being able to look at a couple on-screen and see ourselves so vividly was a big deal to us, and as Pixar has been known to do well, the movie tugged at our heartstrings and hit home.
“Elemental” was a movie that hit close to home for many people including ourselves, but maybe no closer to home than Peter Sohn, writer and director of the film.
He based a lot of the story on his parents’ immigration to America from Korea, and how they survived the Korean War. In an interview with Variety, Sohn talks about his deep appreciation for his parents and their immigration story.
“The older I got, it started to sink in,” Sohn said. “How did they do this without knowing the language? When I got married and had kids, it started to dig into me about how much I appreciated what they had given.”
The story told wasn’t just that of Sohn’s parents, but it was a story very personal to the animators and storytellers working on the movie. At the end of the credits, Sohn includes a touching tribute to his late parents who passed away during the development of the film.
“Elemental” is slated to release on Disney+ on Sept. 13, 2023.