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Pixar’s Elemental draws an interracial love story from a personal place

The filmmakers were inspired by the director’s life — and by movies from The Big Sick to The Godfather

ember, a fire person, stares at wade, a water person. behind them is a nightscape of a city Image: Pixar

As people have guessed from the opening trailer, Pixar’s upcoming film Elemental isn’t just a fantasy movie in an elaborately imaginative setting: At heart, it’s an allegory about an interracial couple. Pixar movies have long dealt with heavy themes like grief and failure, so it’s not totally surprising that the studio’s latest movie would take a metaphorical approach to cross-cultural relationships — even if that isn’t territory that animated movies tend to explore, especially ones geared toward the whole family. While Elemental takes place in a world far removed from our own, where anthropomorphized elements live in the zany Element City, the heart of the story comes from director Peter Sohn’s own experience.

Unlike Sohn’s previous directorial project, The Good Dinosaur, which he inherited after Pixar removed Bob Peterson as director due to creative struggles, Elemental is a very personal movie, inspired by Sohn’s immigrant family and his cross-cultural relationship with his wife. But instead of making a movie about humans going through a similar experience, Sohn deliberately went for a metaphorical approach.

“One of my favorite things about animation is its universality. You can tell a story that can connect to so many people,” explains Sohn. “For my family, that was a big deal.” He says his mother in particular can connect to animated movies in a way she never was able to with live-action ones, where the characters never looked like her and her family. “[This universality in animation] has always been a big deal for me.”

In creating the world of Elemental, Sohn and producer Denise Ream were determined to tell a universal story. That meant making sure the elemental characters and their cultures didn’t specifically correspond to existing cultures. The fire, earth, water, and air denizens of Element City — including the movie’s romantic leads, fiery Ember (Leah Lewis) and water elemental Wade (Mamoudou Athie) — share some similarities with real-life people, but they’re meant to be completely separate from our world.

Ember, a fire person, shelving items in her family’s store Image: Pixar

“When I first started pitching it, there were things of my own life that I would make fun of in terms of like, Oh, I love spicy food. Wouldn’t it be funny if fire food was really spicy?” says Sohn. But once people started asking, like, ‘Oh, are they Asian?’quickly, I realized, No, no, these have to be universal.”

Finding that balance was tricky. If the filmmakers leaned too much on familiar human traits, the characters would lose their sense of universality. But if they strayed too far from anything human, their leads would feel too alien and remote to connect with the audience. So Sohn and Ream ended up deliberately disrupting any seeming cultural association by tossing in new elements as counterbalances.

One big example was with the characters’ accents. Sohn felt it was important for the movie to include accents, having grown up around people with a variety of accents. But at the same time, the filmmakers very consciously avoided giving all characters from one element the same accent.

“We have an actor who’s Nigerian in the fire culture, but if you heard another Nigerian [there], you might start to go, Oh, they’re all Nigerian, right?” says Sohn. “And so [we] would disrupt it by going, Oh, there’s a [fire person with a] Puerto Rican accent, or something else like that. We’re not trying to find the accent of a [particular] culture. But if that happens, it was about disrupting that.”

“And we did that with all of the elements,” adds Ream. “We were careful to do that from a casting perspective.”

Another facet of Elemental that Ream and Sohn made sure to highlight was the importance of family. The story could be a simple boy-meets-girl romantic comedy full of typical “opposites attract” hijinks. But to get to the core of the cultural clash, Sohn knew the movie had to expand to include Ember’s and Wade’s families.

ember, a fire person, sitting at a family dinner full of water people Image: Pixar

“It was also a father and a daughter, and what that relationship was,” says Sohn. “So the initial concept was to try to make something universal — we could have part of that connection with these two [romantic leads as] fire and water, but then also understand the family dynamic, and that cultural part of [their lives], to make the film larger.”

Sohn cites Kumail Nanjiani’s The Big Sick as a prime example of a romantic comedy that also featured an interracial relationship and a blending of cultures. The filmmakers drew from many other romantic comedies, specifically ones focused on second-generation Americans, like My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Moonstruck. But they didn’t limit their influences to romantic comedies. Any movie involving the second-generation immigrant experience became a source of inspiration — including some very unlikely choices for a family-friendly animated movie.

“The Godfather trilogy — or, I should say, the [first] two movies — were huge inspiration from an immigration perspective,” Ream says.

Sohn also cites 2013’s The Immigrant, about a Polish woman (played by Marion Cotillard) immigrating to America in the 1920s, and 2015’s Brooklyn, which stars Saoirse Ronan as a young Irish immigrant in the 1950s. Even though those characters come from different countries in different time periods, Sohn noted that these movies — and many other American movies centered around immigration — shared one particular element, something he highlighted heavily in Elemental.

“The city is always a character,” says Sohn. “Whether it’s a romance or not.”

Elemental hits theaters on June 16.

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