“The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line”, wrote W.E.B. DuBois in 1903 in his ‘The Souls of Black Folk’. The Pixar presentation Elemental (Peter Sohn, 2023) observes the continuum of the problem in the twenty-first century and can be explained only by applying the lens of complexities of immigration in light of this. The story of Ember is a nod to the story of Peter Sohn, whose parents, in fact, were immigrants from Korea. Having grown up in America, Sohn admits that he was not too attentive or committed to the cultural roots of the place of his parents.
Two spirited individuals, or rather nature elements, of opposing temperaments and circumstances but compatible value systems form the central axes of the story. The sympathies lay with the couple. But the xenophobic land, its people, and the tough lives of immigrants are not entirely dispelled.
Elemental (2023) Plot Summary & Movie Synopsis:
After a storm, fire elements Bernie and Cinder Lumen leave their country, Fire Land, and move to a new land, Element City. Although the magnificence of the new city stupifies them, they figure out soon enough that the city is not designed keeping the best interests of the fire elements in mind. While the other elements live a comfortable life, they struggle to find a home and must be constantly vigilant for their well-being. They welcome their little baby in the new land and name her Ember. The family puts up a convenience store and names it ‘The Fireplace.’ Bernie prepares Ember to take over the shop in the future. However, Bernie cannot give Ember the responsibility unless she has her blazing temper well-regulated. Mean customers irk Ember and cause her to burst out in fiery eruptions.
Bernie asks Ember to run the shop for Red Dot Sale. Even with a lot of preparation, Ember struggles to stay afloat with difficult customers who knock things off the shelves and damage the store. She suppresses her temper and rushes to the basement to release it all. In the process, she damages a pipe, allowing a water element, Wade, to flow into her basement. Wade is a city inspector. He writes a ticket against The Fireplace’s defective plumbing and Bernie’s act to rebuild the place without a permit. When Wade says that the ticket can get the place to be shut down, Ember tries to stop him. She follows him to the City Hall, but Wade sends the ticket across anyway.
To rescind the ticket, Ember now has to pursue Gale Cumulus, Wade’s air element boss. Wade takes Ember to the Cyclone Stadium, where they find Gale enjoying a match. Gale says the shop must be removed to find the leak in the city. However, Wade suggests that they should find the source of the water from the shop to find the leak, which would not require breaking the shop apart. Gale gives them a deadline to find the leak and get it fixed, failing which would lead to the confiscation of the shop.
Ember and Wade get on a hot air balloon to make a reconnaissance of the canal. There they find a fissure that lets the overflowing water when the ship steers through to flood the city. Ember and Wade stop the force with a pile of sandbags momentarily. All these adventures bring the two closer, and they roam around the city. Cinder, meanwhile, smells something wrong with Ember.
The next day, Wade fits himself in a flower vase and sneaks into The Fireplace to meet Ember. He informs her that the sandbags were no help and they would need something sturdier to seal the leak. But Wade gets caught by Bernie. Wade, however, introduces himself as a food inspector. At the beach, Ember’s raging fire metamorphoses the sand into glass which strikes her. She uses this ability to convert the sandbags at the leak into tempered glass to make a stronger seal.
Suspecting that her daughter is in love with someone, Cinder secretly follows Ember when she goes to meet Wade in his apartment. Wade invites her in to meet his family. Wade’s family grows fond of Ember after witnessing her glassmaking talent. His mother even recommends her to a friend for a glassmaking internship. In a game, Wade admits he has feelings for her.
Ember takes Wade back to the shop and explains that her dreams do not correlate with her father’s dream of her taking over the shop. Her temper has actually been trying to communicate this with her. Cinder returns and charges Ember for being in love with Wade. Cinder explains they cannot be together as fire and water cannot. Then she performs the test to support her claim. She asks Ember to light the incense sticks, which Ember does at a go. Quite expectedly, Wade being a water element, fails to light them. However, Wade stands in front of Ember and, through refraction, uses her light to create a strong beam that ultimately lights up the incense sticks.
Bernie reveals that the handover of the shop is on his mind. Before handing the shop over, he iterates the incident with his father before he left Fire Land. He laments how his father never reciprocated the big bow. Wade takes Ember to the Garden Central Station to see the Vivisteria flowers the next day. He takes the help of Gale to fulfill this long-forgotten wish of Ember. Gale makes an air bubble for Ember which Wade pushes underwater. Both of them realize that they can touch each other without causing harm to each other. However, Ember is not ready as she suddenly realizes her duty towards her father and the shop. Before leaving, she fights with Wade and terminates their contact.
Elemental (2023) Movie Ending Explained:
Can Fire and Water be together?
The next day, at the grand opening of ‘Ember’s Fireplace,’ Wade unabashedly declares his love for her. But Ember says she does not love him and asks Wade to leave. Bernie also comes to know that the leak in his shop is Ember’s doing and angrily refuses to retire—an enranged Ember leaves. Wade, too, prepares to leave the city.
On the other hand, the glass seal of the dam fails to hold up in the face of the immense pressure of flowing water. The flood rushes towards the area of the fire land. Wade comes to rescue Ember. Both of them manage to save the family’s traditional Blue Light. However, they get trapped in a small room, the heat of which causes Wade to evaporate.
The flood dies down, and Ember gets rescued. She confesses to Bernie that she no longer wants to further the business. She also professes her love for Wade. Ember, however, realizes that Wade is still around, dripping from the ceiling. She plays the crying game to recollect Wade. Wade finally gets back his form and embraces Ember. The two share a kiss and prove that they can stay together without harming each other.
A few months down the line, Ember is seen leaving for abroad to hone her glassmaking abilities with Wade. Before leaving, she performs the big bow for her father. And this time, Bernie returns it to his daughter.
Elemental (2023) Movie Themes Analysed:
Du Bois continues: “The equality in political, industrial and social life which modern men must have in order to live, is not to be confounded with sameness. On the contrary, in our case, it is rather an insistence upon the right of diversity; – upon the right of a human being to be a man even if he does not wear the same cut of the vest, the same curl of hair, or the same color of skin.”
Racial tensions, multiculturalism, and the question of immigrants have begun to figure prominently in Pixar films – take Turning Red (2022), for instance– and ‘Elemental’ is no exception.
When Bernie and Cinder arrive at Element City, the alienness in their language calls for a city official to endow them with names that are more suitable and aligned with the city’s larger population. Through the course of the film, we see them slowly dispense with their native language and adapt to English. This is assimilation. The biggest onslaught of xenophobia depicted in the film was perhaps Ember’s recollection of that one instance when she and Bernie were debarred from entering the Garden Central Station to see the ‘only flower that can thrive in any environment,’ the Vivisteria.
The Fire Land bears markers of Asia. Even the music of the film allows for traditional classical Indian instruments. Element City is not made for the fire elements, so if it reminds some of America, that would not be a surprise. At every stage, the supremely cursed system props itself up and attempts to subsume all identities under one greater rubric-like identity.
But the ethos of Element City is multicultural too. Of U.S. multiculturalism, Vijay Prasad opines, “Whereas assimilation demands that each inhabitant of the United States be transformed into the norm, U.S. multiculturalism asks that each immigrant group preserve its own heritage (as long as it speaks English).” In connection to this, we see Bernie and Cinder trying hard to protect their traditional Blue Flame as if it is the last remnant of their cultural roots. It is the heritage that attracts customers to The Fireplace. However, the state system of the city does visibly nothing to protect this immigrant population and their heritage.
It is not a happy story of all the elements finally accepting the fire elements and working towards safeguarding their rights. In the end, Ember leaves the city, knowing fully well how dangerous even the mere act of daily commuting can be for fire elements like her. One wonders what vilification was awaiting the fire element community following Wade’s ‘death’ while saving Ember. But the film variously advocates for a world of tolerance, diversity, and heritage, and one cannot deny that.