Animation: An Elemental Escapism


Do you remember the last time you sat and disassociated from the gazillion things swirling in the abyss we call a mind? Do you remember the last time you leaned back in your chair and gasped at a scene? The last time you were on the edge of your seat in anticipation of a scene? The last time you gave in to wonder and let yourself be absorbed into a world beyond ours? I’m almost at the end of my undergraduate degree, constantly oscillating between being too grown-up and not grown-up enough, yet the effect animated movies have on me today isn’t much unlike the effect they had on me when I still needed my parents to take me to the movies. And it saddens me a little to know I just might be part of a dying breed: those who can be content with watching animated movies for the revelry of it all without dissecting and unfairly criticising it.

Last week, unlike the rest of our friends, my best friend and I spent our Sunday afternoon being happily sucked into the vivid, marvellously animated world of Elemental, Pixar’s latest venture which was released in theatres on June 16. The film transports the viewer to Element City, home to the classical elements we all know, see, feel, and associate with (if you want to drag astrology into this) — fire, water, air, and earth. With chemistry being the basic premise of existence, there’s one simple rule — elements don’t mix. At least not without consequence. Cue an animated, romantic comedy-drama film between fire (Leah Lewis) and water (Mamoudou Athie) peppered with smoking-hot and cool (get it?) puns about them breaking the status quo, testing boundaries, and presenting complex real-world issues of race, immigration, masculinity, acceptance, and familial pressures into capsule-sized portions that can be digested easily. It’s cute, it’s colourful, it’s captivating. Yet it wasn’t a favourite among critics or at the box-office.

I do agree with some of the critiques — it is a tale as old as time where boy meets girl, they do a bunch of saving-the-world stuff, and they fall in love. It is slightly formulaic, with themes in the movie being obvious repeats of past productions (one might be compelled to draw parallels to Zootopia and Inside Out). However, I can’t say the criticisms were strong enough to keep me from recommending the movie to every second person I’ve spoken to in the past week. I do hate to report, only a single person took my suggestion and loved it. Like I said, dying breed.

Every third rom-com Hollywood churns out has the same mantra, every second franchise produced is formulaic. Take the Fast and the Furious series — Fast X was released on the same day as Elemental, and 10 movies into the franchise, the films continue to churn out the same basic premise of good-looking people with saviour complexes in fast cars and street chases. Yet Fast X is currently doing better than Elemental at the box office. It’s a tested theory in Hollywood where if something works, you got to milk it — whether that’s an animated or an action movie. So if Fast X can get away with recycled premises, why can’t Elemental?

The storylines in Elemental and similar animated movies might have some loopholes, but at the end of the day, movies are about creating memorable experiences for audiences, and one can’t deny that Pixar’s (or DreamWorks’ or Disney’s) world-building is kaleidoscopic and bewitching. They create a cinematic experience that leaves one’s heart warm and imagination soaring. In Elemental, the visual spectacle is beyond comparison — if you freeze-frame each scene, you’ll see how director Peter Sohn has thought through each detail to ensure every element in the frame serves a purpose. It’s not easy to animate fire and water, let alone shape them as characters and give them all sorts of expressions, but Sohn and his team, the purveyors of art-meets-technology-to-create-magic, do so seamlessly. I think that effort alone deserves high praise. Sure, that’s the standard we’ve come to expect of movies from these motion picture companies, but it’s a high standard to uphold, and deserves recognition when it’s exceeded. Movies like Coco, Inside Out and Elemental have such staggering design ambition, that if you just suspend your belief and let yourself be whisked off on an adventure into the worlds they create, I promise you amazement and bedazzlement. Even if the story itself might be slightly lacking at times.

Beyond the visual spectacle, my favourite part about animated movies from Pixar is the delicacy with which they explore human emotions. The strength of Pixar’s stories lies in helping audiences process deeply poignant and sometimes melancholic feelings about the world — sadness, belonging, insecurity and loss as well as address real-world issues like micro-aggressions and immigration. Elemental is no different, capturing sedulously the little things about falling in love through its protagonists Ember Lumen and Wade Ripple — the tentativeness, the slow discoveries, the denial, the leaps in faith, the vulnerability, and the ultimate realisation. Unlike the blink-and-you-miss-the-pun pace of the movie, their story takes time to unfold, roping in the audience to fall in love with the characters as they fall in love with each other on the big screen. The relationship between Ember and her father, Bernie (Ronnie del Carmen), is also portrayed with the nuance and complexity father-daughter relationships deserve to be portrayed with, which on Father’s Day, was even more heartwarming to watch. Like a matchmaker sealing a match, Thomas Newman’s soundscape with its Indian classical-like interludes only hypnotises and accentuates the emotions in the scenes, making it hard to think about anything else other than the two elements falling in love on screen.

As a side note, I also have to appreciate Wade’s emotional and vulnerable character. Hot-headed female leads typically just end up clashing with the male lead’s ego, but like in real life, sometimes the men are the more emotionally mature ones, even if they are a minority. In a world of toxic masculinity, normalising the male protagonist’s overly emotional display of emotions was refreshing, endearing even. Go figure, Pixar.

That’s what animation does: it opens up your world to wonder and awe, stretches the limitations of the impossible, and creates a space for imagination to play. It’s expressive and scintillating, vivid and inventive. Whether that’s Elemental, or any other movie from Pixar’s playbook. Despite this an animated movie has never won in any mainstream category of academy awards, regardless of nominations. Perhaps it’s the false notion that animated movies are meant for children or a generic inability to suspend belief without dragging logic into the picture. Whatever it is, I think it’s high time animated movies received their due, and I hope that in the future, we as a generation grow to cherish them more.