‘Elemental’ Summary & Ending, Explained: What Is The Meaning Of The Film?


Elemental is a new animated rom-com drama film by Disney Pixar that does set out with the same innocent touch one would expect of it but ends up saying much more. As is clear from the title itself, the story takes place in a world of natural elements and is centered around a fire person named Ember who goes through a series of self-realizations and life lessons. Despite being warm and colorful in its visuals and seeming like a kids’ film at first glance, Elemental does talk about real-world issues and struggles that many youngsters grow up around in this modern day.

Spoiler Alert

What Is The Film About?

Elemental begins on a small boat sailing towards the big, bright metropolis of Element City, where two fire elements, Bernie and Cinder Lumen, arrive aboard the boat. It is the Lumens’ first time in the city, and they have come seeking migration, as becomes clear as the couple looks for properties for rent. However, most elements in the grand city are water or air, making the fire element couple’s task of looking for a rented house extremely difficult. Most turn them away, since it is a known fact in this world that different elements do not mix with each other, and the Lumens have a hard time finding anyone like them. Eventually, though, the couple comes across a rundown house with water pipes leaking all over it that has been put up for sale. Bernie immediately decides to buy the house and settle his family here.

Soon, the couple gives birth to a baby daughter, whom they lovingly name Ember. Bernie also turns the front section of their house into a restaurant or small eatery, selling all the traditional and favorite foods of the fire people. Within a short time, the eatery, appropriately named “The Fireplace”, became a popular spot of business and leisure for the neighboring fire people. As young Ember grows up, learning about her culture and their traditional blue flame, which one must never let die out, she starts helping in her father’s business as well. As Bernie ages over time, Ember wishes to take over their eatery completely, hoping to be adept enough to run the business and let her father retire. Ember surely has some problems of her own, most notably in controlling her anger, since the fire girl often loses her temper and burns bright purple. However, she has to face an even more difficult task when a horrible water leak in their basement threatens the very existence of their eatery.

Why are the fire elements ostracized in Element City?

At the beginning of Elemental, when the Lumen family arrives in the metropolitan city for the first time, we are shown paintings about the history of the city. In these paintings, it is revealed that the water elements were the first to arrive in Element City and settle there. When the second wave of elements, soil, came over, the water people welcomed them and helped them settle in. The third wave of elements, air, were also welcomed in a similar manner, but perhaps by this time, the threshold of Element City’s resources had been reached. There are very few fire people in sight, or at least during the first scene, there are none at all. The fire people, like the Lumens, for example, seem to have their own set lives and cultures in their own lands, and they have not had to look for places to migrate to seemingly for a long time. However, how fate might change one’s course of life is seen through the incident that Bernie and Cinder had to face back in their native Fireland. A horrific storm ravaged the place, and the Lumens’ family home was destroyed, even reaching the risky point of putting out their blue flame. As Bernie and his wife survived, he decided that the only way to move forward in life from this incident was to leave their native land and move to the modern metropolis of Element City.

The elements in Elemental are very obviously representative of real people and groups all around us, and each of the elements are actually people of different faiths, cultures, or beliefs. Element City is like any modern city in the world, where people have migrated to and settled over thousands of years, but where the residents are gradually turning their backs against new migrants and refugees looking for shelter. Once all the water, soil, and air people had come and settled at the place, there was no space or resources left for anyone else, as believed by the current residents. However, there is clearly still the possibility of supporting more, as the fire people realize for themselves. The fire elements are symbolic of every minority or non-majority group in any place; they do not look or behave like the others, they have their own language and culture, and they are often hated because of these differences. Like the real world, some people in Elemental also believe that individuals of different elements, meaning those different from each other, should not mix with each other. They are vocal about this, and in a very realistic portrayal, the migrants believe this as well.

While the residents of Element City essentially push the fire people to their own section of the city called Firetown, the fire people are also determined to not mingle with the culture of the others and instead stick to their own group. Therefore, both are equally obstinate and prejudiced against each other, making it impossible for the people to come together and even try to establish a peaceful coexistence. When Bernie first finds out that his daughter Ember has brought a water element, Wade, into their eatery, he is rather angry and very quick to state that fire and water should not even co-exist in the same space. He is even more enraged when Wade tries out a fire delicacy by giving it a twist of his own, basically watering it down, and bans the water element from his eatery.

But Bernie has his own reasons and experiences in life that make him so prejudiced as well. When young Ember wanted to see the Vivisteria flower at the public garden, and Bernie took her there, they were not allowed to enter because of the stated rule that fire elements were not permitted inside the place. The reason for this was that fire elements were considered “dangerous”, which is a significant method of othering used in the real world as well. Despite being valid citizens of the place by that time, they had to be away from certain experiences only because the city had been built with the more native elements in mind. Even at present, the fire elements do have to compromise the most simply because their presence was not considered when the city was first constructed. Ember and her likes are also accustomed to very casual remarks that are hurtful and insensitive as well. As the fire people had their own language, they had to learn the tongue of Element City, which is English, in order to survive. Being a resident of the city since her birth, Ember is fluent in English, and yet at the family party at Wade’s house, one of his uncles remarks on how perfect and unaccented her English is.

How does Ember find herself through these experiences?

Being from the newer generation and also the child of migrant parents, Ember does have a sort of conflicting duality present in her. On the one hand, she probably wishes to mix with the people and cultures of her city, but she also carries a sense of dutifulness towards her parents. Ember knows all about her parents’ struggle to ensure that she has such a good life, and she feels it is compulsory to be able to, in a sense, pay back for their efforts and sacrifices. She believes that the way to do this would be to adhere to her father’s wish that she lead the family business from now on. However, after she has to manage the eatery and all the customers by herself, Ember gradually realizes that she really does not want this life. The feeling that she is not meant to be a manager and seller at an eatery starts to grow in her, and yet she also has to save her father’s business during all this time.

Ember does not, or cannot, immediately come out of the prejudices and learnings she has grown up with, as she too firmly believes that different elements cannot and should not mix with each other. Despite gradually developing feelings for Wade, she keeps away from expressing any of them and always readily admits that they are very different from each other. She is also selective against the culture or enjoyment of the people around her, but soon changes her mind after experiencing them and enjoying them as well. This happens when Wade takes Ember to meet with Gale at the airball match, and the protagonist cannot believe that a sport and entertainment are more important to someone than her livelihood. Yet, after this time, she does become friends with Gale, and the latter helps her out too.

Therefore, Elemental goes on to become the tale of how Ember discovers herself through the process of coming together and mixing with people different from her. The fact that staying restricted to one’s own elements would only make her life one certain way is very well understood. It is only through her interactions with Wade and his family that she realizes the potential of her skills in glassmaking. It is because of these experiences that she learns that she is good enough to have her own life while also being useful to her community. The film also goes on to deliver the message of coming together despite the differences among people. As signified by Ember and Wade, these differences can be of race, ethnicity, gender, or any other type of identity. The elemental characteristics of these beings become secondary, and the fact that they all feel and are all human, in a sense, is what becomes primary and most important. Finally, when Ember allows Wade to touch her, she understands that something that she and most others had always believed for so long was not entirely correct, as with love and the right method, different elements can indeed very well mix together.

What Happens to Ember and Her Family?

The plot in Elemental follows the massive water leakage that increasingly floods and threatens Firetown. Ember and Wade find out that this leak is caused by a large crack in a wall through which excess water from the train lines is rushing in and flooding the Firetown area. Ember uses her skill of making solid glass by heating sand to make a temporary solution. However, by the end of the film, this glass barrier does not hold, and the entirety of Firetown is flooded. The Lumen family’s sacred blue flame is once again at risk, and Ember now tries with all her might to save it. It is Wade who she finds by her side at this moment, despite the fact that the excessive heat is painful for him. Wade then also sacrifices himself, letting himself be vaporized, rather than letting Ember be hurt by the flooding water or her family’s tradition end. As the water element once again comes back to his original form, his sacrifice is enough for Ember’s parents to move past their conservative beliefs and accept him. Ember also decides to take a chance on herself and leave home to pursue the profession of glassmaking.

During Elemental‘s ending, Ember bows down and perform her traditional goodbye ritual to her father. This is suggestive of the fact that despite mixing with the other elements and their varying cultures, one can still hold on to their own cultures, traditions, and beliefs, which preserve their heritage. This is something that is indeed quite common in the real world, too, as innumerable people leave their hometowns and native lands to settle in the city in search of a better life. Although their journey does begin as outsiders, once they are part of the culture of the place, it is important to remember their own roots as well. Ember’s action, in the end, is both symbolic and a reminder of this very practice.

When Bernie had left Firetown, he had performed the same ritual for his father too, but the man had obstinately refused to react to it. He had chosen tradition over his own son’s feelings, but Bernie is a different man with a broader perspective. Keeping alive his roots while also accepting the necessary changes of the modern world, he returns the same goodbye ritual and bids farewell to Ember.

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Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya keeps an avid interest in all sorts of films, history, sports, videogames and everything related to New Media. Holding a Master of Arts degree in Film Studies, he is currently working as a teacher of Film Studies at a private school and also remotely as a Research Assistant and Translator on a postdoctoral project at UdK Berlin.

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