An “Elemental” life: From one animator’s story to a universal narrative

Director Peter Sohn speaks with Cold Tea Collective about his latest film, Elemental – a cross-cultural, universal story of two unlikely friends.
Elemental - art from film

Peter Sohn, director and creator of Pixar’s Elemental, is proud to tell a story of cross-cultural difference and acceptance in a universal way. He draws on his own Asian American experience to build a narrative that speaks to audiences from a variety of backgrounds. Cold Tea Collective got the chance to discuss the inspiration and story behind the upcoming film with Sohn himself. 

The real-life inspiration to Elemental

Set to release in June 2023, Elemental takes place in a city inhabited by the four main elements of nature. The movie follows the unlikely friendship between Wade, an easygoing water element, and Ember, a spunky fire element. The story is based on Sohn’s relationship with his wife.

A legendary animator whose work spans household names like Up, The Incredibles, The Good Dinosaur, and Ratatouille, Sohn says that doodling fire and water characters side-by-side reminded him of his relationship with his wife, and their culture clashes.

“I started digging into those personal experiences of trying to get my parents to accept me marrying someone that wasn’t Korean,” Sohn says. “I jokingly say that my grandmother’s dying words literally were ‘marry Korean.'”

See also: Serendipity: How the stars aligned for the American Born Chinese adaptation

Examining cultural differences in a universal way

Cultural and generational differences between immigrant parents and their children also served as inspiration for the movie, for both Sohn and his fellow team members.

“We started bringing other members of the crew that also shared in those [cultural and generation clashes], and it became this rich sort of place for us to create this world of opposites attracting.”

Elemental - art from film
FUTURE’S SO BRIGHT — In Disney and Pixar’s “Elemental,” fiery young woman Ember (voice of Leah Lewis) lives with her immigrant parents in Firetown—a borough of Element City, where fire-, water-, land- and air-residents live together. Photo credit: Disney/Pixar.

Sohn took his personal experience and made it universal by setting the story in Element City, a metropolis filled with water, air, fire, and earth residents. The four elements, quite intentionally, do not correspond to specific races. Rather, various attributes of familiar ethnicities find themselves grafted onto the elements. For example, the fire elements eat hot coals, analogous to the spicy Korean bibimbaps.

He also put an emphasis on disrupting the audience’s racial expectations. In one instance, the audience would hear South Asian instruments playing in the score for a scene set in the fire neighborhood, but then see a shirt that says “Kiss Me I’m Fire-ish.”

With this racial nonspecificity, Sohn extends a universality to his cross-cultural story. If a single element does not correspond to a specific race, then we can relate to them all. In that way, the audience—no matter what background they come from—would understand the importance of seeing past surface-level differences.

Through this racial description, Sohn weaves an allegory of seeing differences and cross-cultural relations into the movie. 

See also: Rush Hour: Buddy Cops tackle racial bias

Connecting to second generation immigrants

Additionally, for the audience members who come from immigrant backgrounds, Sohn hopes they will take away a renewed gratitude for the sacrifices that first generation parents make. He reflects with awe on how his parents even managed to find housing and sign documents without even speaking English. He believes that this movie will hit home for children with parents like his.

Elemental - art from film
MEET MY MOM — In Disney and Pixar’s “Elemental,” go-with-the-flow guy Wade (voice of Mamoudou Athie) introduces fiery young woman Ember (voice of Leah Lewis) to his mom, Brook (voice of Catherine O’Hara). Photo credit: Disney/Pixar.

Sohn relishes the chance to be able to tell stories that connect to his own. He finds great joy in being able to depict Asian American experiences and characters in his work. This was an opportunity he was not afforded as a young animator.

“Before I got to Pixar, I was drawing background characters. I put an Asian character in, and they said, ‘Oh, we need to change that,'” Sohn laments. While he let the racial slight go at the time, he wishes that he pushed harder for the inclusion of Asian and Asian American characters.

“I just remember that being something that haunted me.”

See also: Pixar’s Turning Red: Adolescence, Asian family dynamics and diversity

Elemental - art from the film
Ember (voice of Leah Lewis) and Wade (voice of Mamoudou Athie) in a scene from Elemental. Photo credit: Disney/Pixar.

Now, Sohn’s advice to young animators and creatives is to be vocal. He grew up around people who were reluctant to share their thoughts and opinions in public, something that he attributes as a generational trait. Sohn encourages young Asian Americans to speak up about their tastes and beliefs in a way that is authentic to them.

With Elemental, Sohn sees himself as leaning more into his voice and beliefs. He hopes that the opportunity to create a specifically Korean American animated film comes along soon.

Disney and Pixar’s Elemental opens in theatres on June 16.

Featured image credit: Disney/Pixar

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