Elemental director Peter Sohn explains how his immigrant parents helped inspire the story behind the film and the metaphors it presents.
Pixar has released its latest adventure that personifies and anthropomorphizes entities that previously have not been brought to life with Elemental focusing on the classical elements.
Pixar has brought to life everything from cars, toys, bugs, and fish, to both emotions of the human body and souls of the human body.
Pixar’s latest dive into storytelling focuses on bringing to life and personifying the classical four elements that exist in nature; water, fire, earth, and air.
While other shows such as Avatar: The Last Airbender and W.I.T.C.H. have previously taken on the classical elements, Pixar is bringing the elements themselves to life.
While Pixar’s Elemental follows the story of the elements coming to life, it draws inspiration from a story of American immigration that many can relate to.
In the film, Ember Lumen, voiced by Leah Lewis, arrives in Element City, being the “first-generation daughter of a shop-owning ‘Firish’ family.”
This serves as a metaphor for the experience of being an immigrant arriving in America. In Elemental, Ember’s parents are, “nubbed at every turn while trying to find a place to live before ultimately settling in a predominantly Firish area of the city,” building more explicitly on the metaphor of comparing Ember’s experience to the segregated sections of major cities in America, such as various Little Italys, Chinatowns, and Koreatowns.
Director Peter Sohn is no newcomer to Pixar. She previously directed The Good Dinosaur and before that worked on other Pixar films such as Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and WALL-E. He also directed the English language version of the 2008 Hayao Miyazaki film, Ponyo.
He’s also done voice work, bringing characters such as Remy’s brother, Emile, in Ratatouille, and the robot cat, SOX, in Lightyear to life. He was even the basis for Russel’s physical appearance in Up.
Having been born and raised in the Bronx, everything came full circle when Sohn returned to the Bronx to speak about The Good Dinosaur after it was made. He became emotional seeing his family there, knowing the struggle and journey they all went on and how he was able to see where he started from where he ended up, and how much he achieved along this path.
As Yahoo shares, Sohn said that he invited his, “parents to it and got up on stage and [gave this speech], and seeing my father, my mother, my brother there, and I could see the city miles of how hard their life was….”
The story was a direct catalyst for the birth of Elemental.
Sohn continued to explain that he was emotional and, “just saw them and just thanked them. ‘If it wasn’t for all the hard work, all that you guys sacrificed, I would not be here.’ I don’t remember everything I said ’cause I was so emotional that day. But after I got back to the studio after this event, people were like, ‘How was this New York thing?’ And I told them that story and they were like, ‘Peter, that’s your next movie.’ And that was the start of all of this, it became [about] trying to understand our parents as people and the people around us that have sacrificed for us.”
With the beauty of Pixar, entities that were previously never thought of to have a movie made about them all became fair game, while having lessons and metaphors on life intertwined in the story.
For example, Toy Story explores the emotions associated with growing up from childhood to adulthood, Cars focuses on the beauty of the simplicity of life, Inside Out shows the significance of every emotion, even the not-so-good ones, and Coco is a reminder that family history transcends through generations, despite death.
These messages are presented on screen via metaphors and through these unique characters being brought to life, from anthropomorphized toys, vehicles, monsters, bugs, and fish to emotions, souls, and classical elements. It brings a new look at common life lessons we all experience daily.
Producer Denise Ream explained that the metaphor goes beyond immigrants, saying, “The idea was never to appropriate one single ethnicity for each of our elements… I think it’s any kind of community that has had to come to the big city or a new place and kind of end up creating their community.”
Ream continues to point out how Fire Town and Element City are different where Fire Town has fire people sticking with fire people while Element City is more free-flowing.
Ream explains, “I think that mirrors a lot of things in real life as well when immigrants come over here and are looking for that sense of community and quite literally have to create it themselves at all costs.”
Romance comes up in the film as Ember falls for Wade Ripple, voiced by Mamoudou Athie, an extremely sensitive water element and while the Lumens are immigrants, Ember’s father carries prejudice, saying fire and water don’t mix.
Ream explains that at the beginning, “It always started with that sort of opposites [attract] sort of thing. But at the same time, it kept wanting to be more. Like all of a sudden, it became a family drama, and then it became this city thing, and it kept growing.”
She finishes by saying the heart of the story is, “this idea of what would happen if fire and water could connect.”
While Elemental is a literal take on opposites attract, it shows how it is possible for anyone, anything, and any entity to interact in meaningful ways.