‘We belong 1000 percent’: Pixar’s ‘Elemental’ is a culmination of immigrant experiences

‘We belong 1000 percent’: Pixar’s ‘Elemental’ is a culmination of immigrant experiences
Peter Sohn. Supplied
Michelle De Pacina
March 31, 2023
“What if the elements we all know were alive?” was the first question Korean American director Peter Sohn asked himself. 
Imagining a fictional world where residents made of fire, water, earth and air live together was the beginning of Disney and Pixar’s all-new original feature film “Elemental.” 
Sohn, who was the first Korean to direct a Pixar film, 2015’s “The Good Dinosaur,” started with a drawing of a fire and water character interacting to eventually form an unexpected friendship.
via Walt Disney Studios
Drawing inspiration from his personal life, he started layering in elements of his relationship with his wife Anna Chambers, whom he met while studying at the California Institute of the Arts. 
“I’m Korean and she’s American, half Italian,” Sohn said in a press conference. “I hid the relationship from my parents at first because they—in an old-school way—wanted me to marry someone Korean. My grandmother’s dying words were literally ‘Marry Korean!’”
Sohn’s parents emigrated from Korea in the early 1970s. He was born in New York City, where he was raised with Korean traditions and culture. However, unlike his grandmother, Sohn’s old-school parents eventually came around to his interracial relationship with Chambers after finding that they had a lot in common with their eventual daughter-in-law’s family. 
Similar to Sohn’s story, “Elemental” follows Ember Lumen, a second-generation immigrant whose parents emigrated from Fireland to Element City. 
In the film, Ember, a tough and quick-witted fire-elemental woman in her 20s, meets Wade Ripple, an observant, empathetic water-elemental man. The two elemental characters, who cannot physically touch each other, eventually form a friendship where they discover their similarities.
via Walt Disney Studios
Ember eventually ventures out of her comfort zone and explores the spectacular world of Element City, which is inspired by cities around the world, while embracing the theorized contributions of each elemental community. Ember and Wade’s bond soon challenges the fire woman’s beliefs about the world they live in.
“In the beginning, Ember has disdain for the city, but Wade helps her begin to fall in love with everything it has to offer,” says Sohn. “She goes on a journey of understanding her own identity and with that, the meaning of what her parents have given her.”
Ember is voiced by Leah Lewis, who previously starred in Netflix’s “The Half of It,” while Wade is voiced by American actor Mamoudou Athie, who is known for his lead role in the 2022 Netflix horror series “Archive 81.” 
Denise Ream. Credit: Deborah Coleman/Pixar
In an interview with NextShark, producer Denise Ream said the Pixar Animation Studios is a microcosm of the diversity seen in the “Elemental” characters. 
There are more than 100 first- or second-generation immigrants at Pixar who came together to speak with the filmmakers about their experiences. These stories eventually became a vital part in creating the nuanced story that Sohn tells in the upcoming film.

When we were starting out on this journey, we saw how many people all over the world were 1st or 2nd generation immigrants. It’s easily half the studio. This is a pretty amazing place, so if you just extrapolate that to the whole world, I can’t imagine Pixar with any different configurations of people. We’re really lucky to all work together.

Like Sohn, Ream shares a personal connection to the storyline as her family originally immigrated to Boston from Ireland. 
While working on “Elemental,” the filmmakers listened to “many emotional stories about what people went through” to be where they are now. 
One of the stories belongs to the movie’s visual effects supervisor, Sanjay Bakshi.
“My parents moved from India to Canada, and I grew up as the only Indian in my community, so I really relate to that part of the story,” Bakshi tells NextShark. 
Sanjay Bakshi. Credit: Deborah Coleman/Pixar
Bakshi and Sohn have been friends since even before the idea for “Elemental” came about. 
“We would talk about what it was like growing up being a child of immigrants. When he started with this idea, I really wanted to be a part of it because I wanted it to be depicted with authenticity,” Bakshi says.  
He recalls bringing friends over to his house, where his mother would cook spicy Indian food.  

We’d always like to observe, “Is it too hot for you?” It would always kind of be like a joke. There’s that kind of humor in the movie, but there’s also like the microaggressions that happen, too, like where someone assumes you don’t speak well because of the way you look. So it was fun to work on it with Pete and be part of it so that it could be authentic and that other people with similar experience can really see themselves reflected in it.

Kim Leow. Credit: Deborah Coleman/Pixar
One of the movie’s animators, Kim Leow, also spoke with NextShark regarding her personal connection to “Elemental.”
Leow, who was born in Malaysia, emigrated to Canada in 2006 to pursue her passion for animation. She attended Sheridan College and went on to work on commercials before venturing out to work alongside filmmakers. 

Pixar has world class talent. I remember watching “A Bug’s Life” back in Malaysia, and it totally blew my mind. Animation is so broad – it’s a mix of art and technology. If you have a story to tell, you can always use any format to tell your story. I find that really beautiful. There’s always a push for the craft and always making it current. There’s no limit to it. 

When Leow first started working on “Elemental,” she found herself relating to the character Ember in many aspects.  

There’s this scene where Ember gets on the train for the first time and that reminded me of the first time I experienced cold weather and snowfall moving from Malaysia to Canada. This is what I love about “Elemental.” It reminds me and takes me back to these little moments.”

Leow also notes that, like Sohn, she is also in an interracial marriage. 
“I find myself in the same situation in which I have to go against my family expectations and culture,” she says.       
The filmmakers and animators stressed “Elemental” was the hardest Pixar film they have tackled, spanning a seven-year development.
Credit: Deborah Coleman/Pixar
Sohn’s parents both passed away during the film’s development, making the journey to completion a journey of personal healing and a tribute to his parents. 
While the movie tackles diversity, family dynamics, friendships and self-discovery, Sohn and Ream highlight the appreciation of one’s parents and their sacrifices.  
“It’s about understanding our parents as people. From that understanding comes an appreciation for the sacrifices that they make for their kids. I took for granted the trials and tribulations they must’ve experienced,” Sohn said in a press release.  
Ream, who had also lost her father, tells NextShark: “The movie gave me the gift of recognizing what my dad really did for us. You could have known intellectually, but when you’re sitting in the story for years, it really gives you time to think about that sacrifice. ”
via Walt Disney Studios
Sohn also spoke with NextShark regarding the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes and violence amid the COVID-19 pandemic and hopes that “Elemental” will spotlight “the value of how diversity makes us stronger, beautiful and so much more rich.” 
When asked about his message to the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, Sohn says:

We belong 1,000 percent. Not only do we belong, but we have added so much into the fabric of America. That’s why this movie is important. There’s definitely that idea of compassion, that idea of empathy, of understanding where someone comes from versus just judging them and casting them aside. There’s so much of that in this film 1000 percent.

“We are better as a diverse community, and we all learn a lot of wonderful things, like having a little bit more empathy and understanding,” Ream adds.
“Elemental,” will hit cinemas on June 16. It will be accompanied by a screening of “Carl’s Date,” a short film from the “UP” universe. 
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