Elemental (Christian Movie Review)
About The Movie
Do opposites attract? That question may be left to the relationship gurus to determine. More pressing to Pixar Studios is whether its cherished movie magic can attract family audiences back to theaters, which has proven to be difficult in recent years.
True to its name, Elemental possesses many of the familiar Pixar elements, for better or worse. There is beautiful animation, artful direction, an emotionally deep story, and the expected exploration of mature “adult” themes. There are also plenty of familiar tropes, such as an anthropomorphized world, and some scattered elements reminiscent of the more controversial recent films (LGBTQ representation and potentially questionable language).
Elemental is a Romeo and Juliet-esque romance. Ember (a fire element) and Wade (a water element) unexpectedly fall in love. The budding romance poses obvious problems, such as their inability to physically touch and the societal expectations that “elements don’t mix.” The movie isn’t slow, but it isn’t action packed either. The movie focuses almost exclusively on the romantic storyline, with the subplot about saving Ember’s family’s business from closing functioning mostly as an excuse to bring the characters together. There are touching moments aplenty, although my 8-year-old twins got a bit restless at times.
Tonally, the movie is fairly serious. It contains humor—some of it quite funny—but the movie lacks a classic goofy side-character to produce laughs. Rather than gags, the film leans into the emotional side of the story. There are some visually striking scenes and some chewy thematic material. There is no “villain.” The struggles are mostly internal, although influenced by the impact of larger cultural factors and prejudices. The story probes the experiences of an immigrant child and the difficulty of balancing personal dreams with family and societal expectations.
These themes are wholesome and redemptive, if occasionally heavy-handed (lectures about privilege come across a bit preachy in a film that otherwise leans more toward subtlety). If all this sounds like a lot for a child audience, it probably is. Even the romantic storyline, while not uncommon in animated films, is likely to resonate more with adults that pre-pubescent child viewers.
The pre-movie short film is a charming story featuring Carl and Doug from UP, and it serves as a reminder of the soaring heights Pixar once traveled. Elemental is not on par with those earlier classics, but it is a return to form after a string of uninspiring duds. The inclusion of some questionable or suggestive material may be enough to keep some Christian audiences away, but there is plenty of redemptive value to appreciate. Overall, Elemental is a charming, beautifully crafted, and skillfully told tale with enough classic elements to remind audiences why they fell in love with Pixar and several problematic elements that affirm why the relationship has become strained.
Engage The Film
Individualism & Family Ties
Elementals strikes an interesting balance between modern individualism and traditional family ties. On the one hand, the movie champions individualism. Ember has dreams but feels pressured to conform to her family’s expectations. Wade encourages her to essentially “follow her heart” rather than her family’s wishes (and in the context of the story, he’s right). On the other hand, Ember’s struggle is evidence of her deep love for her family and her crippling fear of being a “bad daughter.” Unlike Turning Red, another recent Pixar film, in which the daughter aggressively flaunts her independence, Ember’s struggle comes across as far more mature. Some parents may feel uneasy about the theme of a child challenging her parents’ wishes (although, while Ember’s age is not stated, she appears to be a young adult rather than a child), but the film handles the theme in a way that both empowers the child and respects the parent.
Immigration and Racism
Prejudice and racism seemingly exist in all universes. Although set in a fantastical world, the movie clearly channels real-life experiences. Elemental is an immigration tale, with Ember’s family immigrating to Elemental City. Once there, the fire elements are largely consigned to Firetown and treated with disrespect from other elements.
The relationship between Ember and Wade begins as a necessary partnership but slowly morphs into something romantic as the characters from two different worlds come to see the beauty in each other, even as others—particularly Ember’s father—are blinded by stereotypes and unable to accept it. The movie does a good job of tracing Ember’s parents’ journey, sympathizing with their mistreatment and understandable resentment without endorsing it. Wade’s family is in many ways the typical “privileged class,” yet they are also depicted as fundamentally good characters. For the most part, the film handles the themes delicately and allows the characters’ experiences to speak for themselves, although it does occasionally become preachy. Even so, I was able to have a positive conversation with my children on the way home from the theater about immigration and the challenges some people face.