Fire people, who come from a place called Fireland — one Fire person appears with a shirt reading “Kiss me, I’m Firish” — live in an almost slumlike ghetto just outside the gleaming city: Firetown, it’s called, in a nod to all the Chinatowns and other struggling immigrant communities that sprang up around urban centers during the growth of this melting-pot country of ours. The residents of Element City are depicted as bigoted toward Fire people, who must cope with inadequate municipal services.
Some may read the premise as referring specifically to Asian enclaves: The main Fire character, Ember Lumen, is voiced by Chinese American actress Leah Lewis, and Ember’s father, Bernie, is voiced by Filipino American animator Ronnie Del Carmen. “Elemental’s” director, Peter Sohn, is the son of Korean immigrants, and although the architecture of Firetown — which seems to include traditional Russian onion domes — is hard to characterize one way or another, there are shops selling fireworks and, like the Lumen family carryout/convenience store, fiery hot “coal balls.”
Curiously, for a film said to have been inspired by the immigration story of Sohn’s family — and from a writing team that includes Brenda Hsueh, a Chinese American — the movie opts to follow the Western template of four elements, leaving out metal, a fifth element included in both Chinese and Korean philosophy. It’s a missed opportunity to celebrate Asian heritage. The made-up native language of the Lumens, which sounds vaguely Slavic, was created by David Peterson, a linguist who has constructed faux languages for many shows and films, including the Dothraki and Valyrian tongues for “Game of Thrones.”
Okay, so it’s a hodgepodge immigrant allegory. But it’s also a “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”-style love story: Ember, who works in her father’s shop, the Fireplace, meets and eventually falls in love with water inspector Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie, born in Mauritania, raised in New Carrollton), and decides to hide him from her family, who do not approve of Water people. Wade’s wealthy family, for their part, are limousine liberals, but some of their unconscious biases occasionally bubble up during an amusing, meet-the parents dinner party.
All this plays out against some imposing physical challenges for these young lovebirds: Wade and Ember cannot ever touch, lest he potentially “extinguish” her, or she cause him to “evaporate.” Yikes! Yes, Hsueh and her co-writers, John Hoberg and Kat Likkel, have really thought this thing out.
Well, maybe not entirely.
As a grown-up watching this PG-rated immigrant romance — one in which the main characters aren’t children or teenagers but adults with jobs, fully grown post-pubescent bodies and, presumably, hormonally fueled biological desires — my natural thought wasn’t just, “How will they ever kiss?” but, “When Ember and Wade eventually get around to … you know, exactly how steamy is this movie going to get?” (Pun fully intended, in a movie that is filled with them. At one point, Wade tells Ember that she looks “hot.” Oof.)
Okay, okay. It’s a fable, people. “Elemental” is a metaphorically loosey-goosey fairy tale about tolerance, cultural pride and assimilation, set in a stick-to-your-own-kind world that makes the relationship between the star-crossed lovers in “West Side Story” look like a walk in the park. Cute, kind of clever and oh, so topical. But also problematic.
Just think of the sequel, when an Airhead wants to bring her Earth boyfriend home from college to meet her blowhard father. I’ve already got a name for it: “Dust Storm.”
PG. At area theaters. Contains some peril, mature thematic elements and brief strong language. 102 minutes.