A Brief Look At Elemental Through The Lens of a Pixar Traditionalist



Over the Years

Growing up in the early 2000s, my Disney-crazed family thrived off classic Pixar movies. Monsters, Inc. {2001}, Ratatouille {2007}, and The Incredibles {2004} were our go-to films to watch on lazy Saturday afternoons, and in a lot of ways, they united us. They also instilled in me a certain taste in animated films. I couldn’t watch just any kids’ movie like Happy Feet {2006} or Madagascar {2005}. It had to fall in the Disney/Pixar category or else my attention span would fizzle out like a Fourth of July sparkler. 

What can I say? Buzz Lightyear was my idol. 

But when the 2010s hit, I totally lost interest in the movies Pixar was producing. They didn’t evoke warm fuzzy feelings in me the way the older films did. I wasn’t a fan of Cars 2 {2011} when it came out. Why? Because the concept of combining James Bond and country cousin Mater was ridiculous to me as an 8-year-old. I know Rotten Tomatoes gave Finding Dory {2016} a 94 percent rating, but I couldn’t understand the hype. Finding Nemo {2003} was a masterpiece on its own for 13 years. I didn’t need a sequel. And please don’t get me started on Toy Story 3 {2010}. The furnace scene gave me nightmares for weeks. Perhaps the only 2010s-era Pixar movie that passed my radar was Brave {2012} since the protagonist broke the societal tradition of princesses falling in love with princes. So that was cool to watch as a little girl. 

Now I will say, Pixar has produced some damn good movies over the last few years, like Turning Red {2022}, which received a 95 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and Coco {2017}, which got a whopping 97 percent rating from critics. My family and I thought they were heartwarming and innovative, with well-developed characters and layered plots. However, I still couldn’t consider them “classics” in my book. I was born into the world when Pixar was pumping out their most iconic projects. How could I wholeheartedly accept contemporary Pixar?


My confidence in the animation company dwindled. Until I saw Elemental this past summer. I watched it with my mom and sister at my local Picture Show on a Wednesday night. I, of course, had low hopes in Elemental because of my “Pixar traditionalist” mindset. I didn’t voice my negative thoughts on the movie, though. My mom paid for our tickets, and I agreed to tag along because I had nothing better to do that evening. “This is going to suck,” I thought to myself when the lights grew dim in the movie theater. But when the first scene came on the screen, I was enthralled. 

For those who haven’t seen the movie yet, here is a quick rundown: a Fire couple named Bernie and Cinder immigrate to Element City, a metropolis containing Air, Earth, Water, and Fire people, in hopes for a better life for their expecting child. Cinder gives birth to a girl named Ember, who eventually helps her father Bernie run their family business in Firetown. When Ember reaches the age when she can take over her parents’ shop, she meets a Water man named Wade, and the two of them fall in love. Their relationship is fraught, however, because according to her cultural environment, fire and water don’t mix. Ember must choose to either start her own career and be with Wade {go against her father’s wishes} or take on the family business and throw her romantic relationship away.



The Animation

As I mentioned previously, I was captivated by this film. The three biggest things that stood out to me while watching this movie were the animation, character development, and messages. I’ll start by describing its animation. Firstly, the physical detail of the characters is insane. Especially the Fire and Water people. They display the same characteristics as real fire and water. For instance, Wade is a water blob, so his body is transparent and can change form. Ember embodies an actual flame. Therefore, she burns, glows, and even changes color when touching certain objects, like crystals. The realism in this film is unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a Disney/Pixar project. Or in any animated film period.

The Character Development

The character development is outstanding as well. We got Ember, the daughter of immigrant parents who was raised to put her family first . When she forms a relationship with Wade, she begins to discover her own passions and desires in life, and gradually opens her eyes to the world beyond her family shop. I don’t have immigrant parents or anyone in my extended family who are new to the U.S. But I know that Ember’s upbringing is relatable for those with immigrant backgrounds. So I found her personal journey throughout the film quite moving and enlightening compared to other characters in the Pixar universe. I would also like to mention that Ember’s character arc is extremely similar to Toula Portokalos’ character arc in My Big Fat Greek Wedding {2002}, which I thought was a funny connection.  

There have been plenty of movies in the past that have dipped their feet into the subject of immigration. Take An American Tale {1986} and Casablanca {1942}, for example. Even so, I don’t believe they capture the reality of immigrants as phenomenally as Elemental. Even though the film takes place in a fictional world inhabited by elements, it still succeeds in conveying the struggles human immigrants go through. Perhaps the greatest struggle Elemental shines a light on is prejudice – an extremely real issue for U.S. immigrants. This issue is prevalent in the beginning of the movie when Bernie and Cinder are looking for a permanent home in Element City. They are faced with prejudice when no one will allow them into their homes for being Fire people. They also encounter microaggressions. When Ember meets Wade’s family for the first time, one of his relatives compliments her on her English-speaking skills out-of-the-blue, an instance that makes her and Wade uncomfortable. In short, Elemental, a movie catering to kids and families, calls out the racist B.S. U.S. immigrants and minorities put up with on a daily basis, and it is so damn satisfying to watch. 



The Messages

Lastly, the mature messages the film conveys are educational and heartwarming for all ages. Elemental teaches its audience that true love is unconditional and universal. No matter where we come from, we can experience love with anyone as long as our hearts are open to the prospect. The film also teaches its audience that we must decide what’s best for ourselves. If we let others govern our futures and beliefs, we’re not living for ourselves. Thus, we must do what brings us joy. 

Elemental was the first Pixar movie that moved me in years. Its unique spin on immigration, romance, and self-discovery produced a profound reaction within my inner child. With that being said, my 7-year-old spirit has opened up more to new Pixar movies. They may not scream “nostalgia” in my head just yet, but I know that in a few years or so, I will show these films to my kids with a reminiscent heart and say, “These were the good old days.”

Samantha Szumloz

Samantha Szumloz is a sophomore Writing Arts major at Rowan University. Her passions include writing poetry, short stories, and pop culture pieces.