Elemental Is Pixar's First True Rom-Com (And It Actually Works)

The longest-running joke about Pixar — the meme you see sweep social media just about any time the studio drops a new trailer — is that their winning formula always boils down to a variation on the same question. What if toys had feelings? What if cars had feelings? What if feelings had feelings?

Of course, it's not an inaccurate observation, but Pixar's strength has always been in the variety of stories that spring from that central question, with a spectrum of genres and an array of characters fitting comfortably under the studio's stylistic umbrella. They've brought us workplace comedies, superhero adventures, even an insectoid retelling of "Seven Samurai." Rivals have become buddies, a father has crossed the ocean to find his son, a princess has reconnected with her mother who'd been turned into a bear.

And yes, there have been noteworthy romances across the Pixar canon. WALL-E and EVE proved that two barely-verbal robots falling in love can be the beating heart of a sci-fi thinkpiece. "The Incredibles" went deep on its heroes' family dynamics, with a surprisingly mature depiction of the highs and lows of marriage. And we all remember what those first ten minutes of "Up" did to us. But when you look across the 26 feature films they've released to date, you might notice something: Pixar's never really done a rom-com. Their next movie, "Elemental," is about to change that.

Pixar artists found the humanity of Elemental at the concept stage

"Elemental" introduces fire element Ember (voiced by Leah Lewis) and water element Wade (voiced by Mamoudou Athie), citizens of Element City, where beings of fire, water, earth, and air co-exist in a bustling melting pot of cultures. It's a classic story — girl meets boy, girl's parents don't approve of boy being made of water. It wouldn't even be unfair to call the premise formulaic. But in the context of the Pixar legacy, that's exactly what makes it unique and exciting.

During a recent press preview of "Elemental" at Pixar, director Pete Sohn and his team explained the project's journey to the screen. The filmmakers found their story — as cartoonists so often do — by exploring their own emotional response to visual experiments. Some early drawings had characters using their elemental properties like superpowers, with Ember shooting fire in thrilling action poses. But as Sohn explains, that didn't feel like the story he wanted to tell. 

"When I was first dating my wife, there are very vulnerable moments that you have where you feel emotionally naked," the director recalls. "And then all of a sudden, we were drawing Ember like a candlelight, where she got very dim and fragile ... I'm like, 'Oh my God, I'm totally feeling what that feeling is.'"

The characters of Elemental are refreshingly vulnerable

The vulnerability the filmmakers have tapped into sets "Elemental" apart from not just the Pixar canon, but the general vibe of so many American animated movies. While its colorful visuals and clever gags about life in the city help it fit right into the tradition, its small-scale romance between two characters — who, despite being literal fire and water, are really just ordinary people — feels refreshingly intimate.

Part of that intimacy comes from the normalcy of Wade and Ember's lives. Anyone who's worked retail will empathize with Ember's struggle to contain her rage at annoying customers. Even the incident that brings the pair together — a broken pipe and water damage leading to a bureaucratic building code nightmare that could sink the family business — is so utterly normal you might not expect it from one of Pixar's most technically-challenging films to date. It's a pleasant surprise to see such a juxtaposition of the mundane and the fanciful, rooted in the personal.

Elemental was made by rom-com fans, and it shows

Sohn describes the story of "Elemental" as a triangle — not a "love triangle" in the usual sense, but a story about how we carry our families with us even in our relationships with other people. "It's not just a boy meeting a girl or a girl meeting a boy," he explains. "It was also a father and a daughter, and what that relationship was." Sohn's own experiences as the son of Korean immigrants are at the core of "Elemental," and there's a genuine appeal to that personal touch, with characters who exist not as superpowered cartoons, but as, well, elemental expressions of human emotion.

When asked about the film's identity as a romantic comedy, Sohn is quick to identify as a fan of the genre. Among the touchstones for the director and his team are the works of Jane Austen, "Moonstruck," "The Big Sick," and "Amélie." A movie that strives to join the ranks of those classics as much as it stands alongside "The Incredibles," "WALL-E," and "Up" feels like something completely new for Pixar, and that's what makes "Elemental" so exciting.

"Elemental" arrives exclusively in theaters June 16.