As often as people like to accuse Disney and Pixar of playing to political correctness or “going woke,” it’s actually a rather rare occasion when the studio puts out projects — movies especially — that try to directly engage with topics like structural / institutional racism or interracial dating. Elemental, Pixar’s new feature from director Peter Sohn, attempts to reflect on all of those realities about our world with a pun-filled story about two star-crossed lovers pulled together by fate in spite of the larger forces working to keep them apart.
In its conception of a world where everyone falls into one of four classical elemental categories, you can see Elemental trying to present a story about race and difference that’s immediately accessible to a broad audience. But in Elemental’s play for broadness, it frequently seems unable to talk about its sensitive subject matter without piling on so-so metaphors that can make it feel a lot like another Zootopia, which Disney almost assuredly didn’t mean to be the case.
Set mainly in the gleaming, bustling metropolis known as Element City, Elemental tells the tale of how a fiery young woman named Ember Lumen (Leah Lewis) and an emotionally fragile water man called Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie) first meet and begin to fall in love at a time when they’re both looking for a little more direction in their lives. As the first and only child born to immigrants Bernie (Ronnie del Carmen) and Cinder (Shila Ommi) — two of the first fire people to ever settle in Element City — Ember knows well what it means to live with unbelievable expectations looming over her.
Though Ember loves her parents and the way their convenience store, the Fireplace, became the heart of Element City’s Fire Town, deep down, she knows that taking over the family business isn’t what she really wants in life. Being the good and dutiful daughter that she is, Ember would never dream of telling Bernie that she’d rather go out into the world to find her own passion. But like Bernie, Ember’s temper occasionally gets the best of her, and bottling up her feelings causes her to become so literally explosive that her parents can’t help but see keeping her in Fire Town among her own people as being what’s best for them all.
The wealth of imagination that’s on display as Elemental first introduces Elemental City — a sprawling metropolis filled with public transit waterways and open-air skyscrapers — is nothing short of astonishing and helps illustrate one of the movie’s more novel ideas. Because water, earth, and air people built Element City in tandem with one another, the movie explains, most everything about the city is designed to be accessible according to their unique needs. As the last group to immigrate to the city, though, fire people — whose bodies can be extinguished — are forced to live very different, ghettoized lives, and Elemental tries to make clear how that difficult truth is part of the reason Bernie is so distrustful of other elements — water especially.
Elemental’s visuals are eye-catching, and each and every single one of its sight gags feels like the end result of an animation team that felt powerfully inspired by the task of realizing a city populated by anthropomorphic elemental beings. But as soon as Bernie starts talking to himself refusing to be “watered down,” and the movie gives you a good look at just how objectively dangerous Ember’s emotional outbursts can be, the people-as-different-elements metaphor starts to show its limitations in terms of how effectively it can get Elemental’s points across.
It’s obvious that there’s much more going on with Bernie’s rage in one scene where he chases two water boys out of the Fireplace while chastising them for not buying anything, but it’s never all that clear whether Bernie’s distaste for water people is just flat-out racism or fear because they could put him out with their bodies. It’s interesting to see how Ember’s forced to comport herself and wear specialized clothing when she’s out and about in Element City where people are often pushed into close quarters. But in moments where her temper gets the better of her and she accidentally burns off a tree-person’s foliage (which is their... skin? unclear), it’s very easy to imagine why the other elements might fear fire people, which complicates the movie’s framing of them as minorities being unjustly discriminated against.
With Elemental’s racial metaphors becoming as muddled as they quickly do, one would hope that the movie’s central romantic plot line might bring some focus and clarity to things. But pretty much from the moment city inspector Wade bursts into Ember’s life, the film starts to move at such a dizzying but uneven pace that it becomes surprisingly hard to buy the idea that the two of them are falling all the way in love rather than just becoming unexpected friends. Rather than bringing Ember and Wade closer together in a way that makes you understand what they’re feeling for each other, the movie instead puts them on a kind of quest to save the Fireplace from being closed, a plot that just never really feels all that interesting or where Elemental needs to be focused.
You can’t exactly disregard how, the longer Elemental goes on, the more questions the movie’s central metaphor raises about its world — how do people feel about storms, for example? Or wildfires? But you can tell that Disney went into Elemental not wanting it to be another Zootopia — a movie so eager to be clever about race that it forgot to be mindful of its deeply questionable optics and flawed internal logic. And yet, as was the case with Zootopia, there are just a lot of things about Elemental’s metaphorical world that don’t feel all that well thought out when you really try to consider them.
Elemental also stars Mason Wertheimer, Catherine O’Hara, and Joe Pera. The movie is in theaters now.