When we talk about animated movies, Pixar’s recent endeavors have been disappointing in terms of both animation and storytelling. In 2022, the studio attempted to break the notion of discussing periods/menstruation and addressing the first steps towards womanhood with “Turning Red,” but it sort of chickened out to tell a more universal tale than what it wanted to initially say. Additionally, their second film of the same year, “Lightyear,” suffered a downfall for the studio and felt like a mere attempt to cater to fans by using a beloved character from their classic “Toy Story.” With their latest venture, it seems Pixar is struggling to find a concrete voice again. It tells a story as old as time and is never able to move away from the monotony of using the typical fairy tale narrative. “Elemental” is tender and adorable but also problematic in ways that take us back in time instead of moving us forward. 

Pixar’s 27th film, Elemental, presents itself as an original concept; however, when you look at it closely, you can clearly see that this story is merely a gender-flip on the ‘maniac pixie dream girl’ where a girl is told about her purpose in life from a man that she meets.

Written and directed by Peter Sohn, the filmmaker draws inspiration from his parents’ transition to the USA. The story transports us to the lives of Bernie and Cinder Lumen, who have just taken their first steps into Element City—a home far away from their own. Element City provides residence to various elements present in our environment and is designed to be inclusive, although it is primarily built to cater to water elements.

The exclusive inclusivity of Element City

In the first few minutes, the creator establishes the concept of Element City, and we are directly introduced to the lives of the Lumens as they create a new life in this unfamiliar city. The Lumens run a convenience shop and have a devoted daughter named Amber. Bernie has always envisioned his daughter taking over the store as her own one day. On the other hand, Amber strives to improve herself and become responsible to fulfill her father’s expectations. However, there is a minor issue—Amber hasn’t mastered the skill of maintaining a cool temperament, which is crucial for someone working in public relations.

While Amber has good days at the store, attending to numerous customers, fulfilling responsibilities, and remaining alert, there are moments when her composure wavers. Bernie, a traditional and patient fire element, despite his own calm nature, expects Amber to remain composed and successfully manage the shop. Each time he thinks Amber can handle everything without losing her temper, there comes a moment where she falters. However, with years of practice, Amber gradually learns to be patient and calm. One day, Bernie entrusts her with the keys to the cash drawers, hoping she will do well and allow him to retire.

However, overwhelmed by a sudden surge of customers during a dot-sale and dealing with demanding customers that make her head spin, Amber seeks refuge in the storage cellar to “extinguish her raging fire.” For a young adult like Amber, it is challenging to contain emotions and not become vulnerable in dire circumstances. Upon releasing her pent-up frustration, anxiety, and pressure, a mishap occurs, causing a pipe to burst – adding more worries and anxieties.

With water flooding everywhere, we are introduced to Wade (who slipped through the broken pipe on his way to the city administration), a water element and city inspector. Amber panics at the sight of a water element on the grounds of a fire element, as their law suggests that fire and water elements do not mix well. This situation reflects Bernie and Cinder’s past experiences when they were denied rental housing because ‘elements cannot mix’ – leading the family to settle in a town that is suitable for ‘fire’ residents only.

Just as Amber begins to gather herself, Wade adheres to his city duties and immediately starts issuing notices for breaking several protocols intended for the city’s welfare. Witnessing the pile of notices that could potentially lead to the closure of the shop, Amber tries to convince Wade not to submit them. However, Wade is dutiful and prioritizes his responsibilities over a sob story, so he proceeds to submit the records. This decision breaks Amber’s heart, as the shop holds immense significance due to its core values—a dream her father has dedicated his entire life to fulfilling.

The burden of years of repression

Amber, a young girl, is more concerned about the consequences affecting her parents’ lives than her own. As she grows into adulthood, she has always been taught to put forth her best efforts, make her life meaningful, and express gratitude towards her ancestors and elders for the sacrifices they made to provide the next generation with the opportunity to embrace their life’s purpose. However, Amber, who has always focused on her parents, remains unaware of the fact that she has the power to make choices for herself and enjoy the present moments that unfold before her.

It is only when Amber and Wade go to visit Gale (Stormy Cloud) to get the notices revoked in order to save the shop from closing down that Amber realizes the power and charm Wade has within himself. He can make things turn around, and Amber wishes to be someone like him. On the other hand, Wade, despite belonging to a different “element” (such as a different gender, class, religion, or culture), emphasizes to Amber how she is living a different life than one dedicated solely to serving grander ideals.

FIRE AND WATER – Set in a city where fire-, water-, land-, and air-residents live together, Disney and Pixar’s “Elemental” introduces Ember, a tough, quick-witted and fiery young woman whose friendship with a fun, sappy, go-with-the-flow guy named Wade challenges her beliefs about the world they live in. Featuring the voices of Leah Lewis and Mamoudou Athie as Ember and Wade, respectively, “Elemental” is now in theatres. © 2023 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Showing Amber, who is a grown, independent, strong, and witty adult, in utter chaos and cluelessness and realizing the meaning of life through the eyes of a male perspective in the year 2023 – when one should be talking more progressive things, this notion is quite old-fashioned and repressive. We have grown up watching films that portrayed women in distress, waiting for a man to come to their rescue. From Rapunzel to Superman, women have often been depicted as characters from fairy tales, relying on a prince to save them.

Haven’t we reached a point in our lives where it is an established rule of nature that we don’t need a male perspective to gain insights about our world? We don’t need to be told what is beneficial for us. We certainly don’t need a man to solve our worries and problems. However, despite being a story about a woman, the film’s perspective is seen through the eyes of a man. This is why, Elemental clearly falls into the traditionally problematic category. Amber, who has taken up the responsibility of saving her father’s dream from collapsing, is constantly guided by Wade, who is continuously “mansplaining” things to Amber, even though she feels like a character who is perfectly capable of figuring things out on her own.

The intercultural romance

Furthermore, the film presents an intercultural romance between Amber and Wade. The recurring theme of fire highlights the notion that fire should remain within its own community or culture and not seek love elsewhere. This belief goes against the laws of nature, emphasizing the need to preserve and protect the “blue” fire, representing traditional rules and conditioning. Amber even harbors a fear of physical contact with Wade, fearing that he may “extinguish” her flame. This serves as a compelling illustration of how traditional storytelling methods impede progress and the exploration of our authentic selves.

Additionally, the film portrays Wade as hailing from a privileged “upper-class” family, granting him access to everything. Together with his family, he endeavors to create opportunities for Amber, who originates from the “fire” side of town, often enduring discrimination due to racial disparities. In its current state, the filmmaker has chosen to narrate the story through the perspective of an “outsider,” specifically an Asian girl, as she seeks to find meaning in her life. It’s worth noting that the story could have taken a different approach by telling a male’s story with a male character’s perspective, as in its present state the male gaze completely hinders the trajectory of Amber’s narrative.

As the narrative unfolds, we are confronted with symbolic representations of traditional manipulation and conditioning. We grapple with the challenges of assuming adult responsibilities at a young age, burdened by more than we can handle. We find ourselves constrained by social discrimination and limited perspectives, navigating a constant fear of being stigmatized for loving someone outside our community. Amidst this struggle, we strive to discover the true purpose of life while upholding our core values.

While the film is laid bare by its critiques, its important to also highlight its merits, particularly the intention to help the audience understand the significance of embracing and expressing emotions. For instance, Wade is often seen shedding tears over emotionally poignant thoughts, in spite of it being portrayed through the lens of weakness or absurdity. As the story progresses, a pivotal moment arises when Amber and Wade unite in an effort to locate the source of water seeping into the “fire town.” It is during this juncture that Amber realizes her inner strength and uses it to craft a magnificent glass sculpture capable of containing excess water.

Realizing one’s true strengths

While this initially left me baffled, upon introspection, I realized that we often ignore our strengths, and it is only when our partners point them out that we start to see things differently. In reference to this, when Wade makes Amber realize that she has the ability to make a difference for herself using her power and talent, Amber still ignores it because she doesn’t want to hurt her father’s feelings. Years and years of oppressive conditioning and suppression of emotions have led Amber to become clueless about whether she really wants to pursue taking care of the shop or wants to do something on her own and create a life out of it. She doesn’t have an opinion of her own when it comes to taking control of her life. The story of her life is already designed by the men in her life—first, her father, who has the best intentions for his daughter’s future, followed by Wade, who pushes his partner to become a better version of herself. As much as the narrative is motivated to push the character for the greater good, it ultimately falls into the same old narrative of controlling women’s pursuits.

During the film’s climax, when Amber and Wade get trapped inside the firehouse in order to save the ancient blue fire, which holds great importance to Amber’s family and represents a deity or traditional beliefs, Wade eventually evaporates so that Amber can let go of him and embrace her true nature. When the water leakage finally stops, Amber rushes to her family and confesses that she is uncertain if she would like to take care of the shop and would rather pursue something she thinks is more suitable for her. Bernie is surprised but eventually delighted to learn about his daughter’s decision and says, “I always believed in you.” Is it because she saved the blue fire from extinguishing, or did he truly believe in his daughter’s talent? Throughout the film, he never pushes her to pursue something of her own or even asks if she wants to take on the responsibilities of the shop. This once again highlights how old-age traditions and patriarchy influence the narrative of storytelling.

As we delve deeper into society’s progress and our perception of individuals regardless of their caste, culture, or gender, it begs the question: will we continue to consume age-old movies where a third party enters our lives to remind us of our significance in society? Is there room for stories that celebrate the accomplishments and potential of the younger generation based on their unique talents and abilities? It is disconcerting to think that we may be trapped in a cycle of narratives centered around the need for external saviors or the stifling effects of traditional conditioning. However, there is hope. There is an abundance of untold stories waiting to be brought to life in innovative and progressive ways. We need new voices to emerge, breathing fresh life into these narratives and paving the way for a more inclusive and inspiring future.

Read More: How “Spider-Man Across the Spider-Verse” challenges the very identity of Spider-Man and its intersectionality

Elemental (2023) Movie Links: IMDbRotten TomatoesWikipedia
Elemental (2023) Movie Cast: Leah Lewis, Mamoudou Athie, Ronnie Del Carmen
Where to watch Elemental

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