The flow of culturally thematic titles from Disney has been a choice widely accepted and praised in recent years, think the three-year sprint of Soul (2020), Luca (2021) and Turning Red (2022), and with these titles double functioning in their aim to sell and culturally illuminate, one may wonder where Elemental finds its place in Disney’s modern arsenal of worldly perception.
Elemental, like its predecessor Zootopia, finds itself in the precarious space between family-fun and modern social-issue. A white-hot line to tread. Despite this, a newfound emotional depth was achieved through a more severe subject matter, one that, until this point, Disney has not been able to access.
Audiences follow Ember (Leah Lewis), the daughter of two immigrant fire elements as she navigates Element City and its rampant xenophobia. With love, occupation, and expectation to attend to, Ember is a layered heroine who invites audiences to consider not only a new culture, but a historically marginalised perspective.
The premise for Elemental was nerve-racking. As the bricks of exposition were laid, I remember hoping, really hoping, that this family-fun adventure would not be resolved by eliminating racism in those one-hundred-and-nine precious minutes. However, the movie did a surprisingly excellent job of navigating around an array of nuanced experiences without ‘fixing’ them in a way that may have been more comfortable for white audiences. Wade (Mamoudou Athie), Ember’s love interest and a stand-in for the racial majority, engaging in conversations about the complex immigrant experience was as refreshing as it was necessary, and hopefully beckoned conversations on the immigrant experience for young people at home and parents alike.
As we have come to expect from such high-budget studios, the animation and design was flawless and teeming with bustling, urban life. Alongside a phenomenal score by Thomas Newman, the soundtrack was diverse and truly emblematic of a cross-contaminated Venice and New York City. Criticisms arise, however, from the recent surge in experimental art styles being tried in cinema (‘Spider Man: Across the Spider-Verse’ (2023), ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem’ (2023)) wherein a ‘sketchbook’ look is proving to be a popular favourite, as opposed to the clean, smooth style of Disney’s modern works. One can only wonder if Elemental will be amongst the last that use this polished, if not formulaic, style.
As we have come to expect from such high-budget studios, the animation and design was flawless and teeming with bustling, urban life.
Looking back at this movie, audiences will hopefully credit it for breaking ground with an innovative peek at what the capitalist giant of Disney can do in the realms of social justice. However, the question of whether this is the mouse’s egalitarian, empathetic spirit prevailing, or whether the studio is commodifying the immigrant experience, is undoubtable. Thus, Elemental does as we would expect: the movie provides an enlightening moment wherein the racial majority can glimpse into the lives of those oppressed (for a cost) but ultimately leave the movie theatre with a banefully accommodating Happy Ending, and that magical Disney glow.