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Elemental shakes up the Zootopia formula with an immigrant story, says director Peter Sohn

There’s a key element in the new Pixar movie: mixing

Ember the fire girl walks into the big Elemental City square with Wade, the water guy in Pixar’s Elemental Image: Pixar

The trailers for Pixar’s Elemental introduce a big, bustling city full of colorful inhabitants. Disney fans were quick to make comparisons to Zootopia, Disney Animation’s 2016 film also set in a big, bustling city full of colorful inhabitants. Some differences are obvious — instead of animals, Pixar’s summer release breaks down the population into fire, water, earth, and air people — but as Polygon learned from director Peter Sohn (The Good Dinosaur, the voice of Sox in Lightyear) during a visit to Pixar in March, the creative choices behind Elemental’s Element City go beyond the residential.

“It’s not like in Zootopia, where everything is disconnected from each other,” Sohn says. Instead, like New York City, Element City is built upon the idea of different people all coming together in a big melting pot of cultures. So instead of separate neighborhoods like in Zootopia, for the most part, all the elements live side by side.

“It’s all about mixing,” Sohn says. “That’s what was so fun about this idea of: some elements can mix and some don’t. And what does that relationship look like? So water spilling onto earth people, that grows their plants. The idea of fire people needing wood to eat. There was a symbiotic relationship that they all needed to interconnect. And so we try to do that as much as we can in place. It’s not 100% everywhere, but it was definitely one of our building blocks.”

At its core, Elemental is an immigrant story following Ember (Leah Lewis), the daughter of two fire people who emigrate from an unspecified fire land and look to build their lives in Element City. Sohn was inspired by his parents’ journey from South Korea to the Bronx in the 1970s. While most of Element City is built in a synergistic manner, it is a little harder for the fire people to integrate in a city where water, earth, and air people came first. As such, Sohn felt it was important to interject some real-life tension into the story.

Ember and her smirking fire dad in a fire person restaurant in Pixar’s Elemental Image: Pixar

“It’s meant to have this feel of, like, Oh, we could have a new life here. Our dreams can come true here… with a little bit of xenophobia,” the director says. After all, while some elements mix, some very much don’t. Fire and water, for instance, are in obvious conflict. So when Ember eventually befriends and develops a romance with water person Wade (Mamoudou Athie), it adds even more dimension to the already unlikely relationship. After all, this is a couple that can’t even physically touch.

“Everyone is trying to mix well in Element City, but then [Ember’s] father, Bernie, having issues with some of the majority… He would start to [have] his own uncomfortable connection with water early on,” Sohn explains. “Obviously when Ember connects more with water characters, that would be an issue.”

While Elemental and Zootopia use metaphors to unpack biases, Sohn hopes to zoom in not just on the seemingly doomed connection between a water person and a fire person, but also on the relationships that they have with their families, particularly their parents. Both Wade and Ember’s families will need to connect with the other, despite their many, many differences. And because this is a world where the four classic elements are people, those challenges turn into literal physical incompatibilities that they must overcome.

“That connection between fire and water was the first thing I pitched to Disney,” Sohn says. “Could fire and water ever connect? Is that even possible? And that hook really drove it.”

Elemental hits theaters on June 16.

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