Inside the Deeper Themes of Pixar’s New Movie
After a slow start to 2023, Disney’s theatrical slate is set to quickly kick into high gear in the next couple of months. The big screen is about to be hit with projects from Disney, Lucasfilm, Marvel, and, of course, Pixar. Elemental is the contribution from the latter to Disney’s packed summer slate and will be the studio’s second feature film to be helmed by Peter Sohn after he took over directorial duties midway through production of 2015’s The Good Dinosaur.
Elemental will be the second Pixar film to get a theatrical release since the first COVID-19 shutdowns. Not only that, but it will be the first original feature from the studio to get a theatrical release since then. After last year’s Lightyear ended up being a financial disappointment, Elemental’s performance at the box office may have a significant impact on the future of Pixar movies on the big screen.
Unfortunately, public reception to the initial trailer for the film hasn’t been very buzzworthy, and it’s not hard to see why. It teases the story of a romance between two characters who are polar opposites (she’s a fire creature and he’s a water one) in a world in which folks generally stick to their own kind. Cute, but not groundbreaking. Comparisons to several other Pixar and Walt Disney Animation films are already being made, including Inside Out and Soul (for the character designs) as well as Zootopia (for the setting of a themed city, in this case one inhabited by elements instead of animals). The marketing for Elemental thus far isn’t showing anything innovative, which is a shame, because there’s a lot going on with this movie that isn’t being communicated to the public.
Last week, I attended a showcase event for Elemental in Toronto with director Peter Sohn. The presentation included the screening of several of the film’s scenes (one of which consisted of the first 20 or so minutes of the movie), a presentation on the seven-year development of the picture (much longer than that of other Pixar movies), and a short Q&A session with Sohn. The main takeaway from the whole thing was that Elemental is a much more personal project than most Pixar fans realize.
So far, the movie’s marketing has communicated that Elemental is set in a city whose citizens are all made up of one of four elements: Fire, Water, Earth, and Air. Being the species of the two main characters, Fire and Water get the most emphasis in the trailer. From what press was shown of the movie, this also seems to be the case throughout the film, though one scene shown during the presentation was a fun sporting event sequence focused on Air characters. What audiences haven’t been shown in marketing yet is that Elemental is an immigrant story, with each element originating from a certain area of the world and eventually having people of it settle in Element City.
Water was the first element group to arrive in Element City, while Fire is the latest. As Sohn pointed out during the presentation, this was absolutely intentional; in the real world, water, air, and earth have a symbiotic relationship with each other that fire is left out of to a certain extent, so it’s only natural for Fire to be the last element to be introduced into Elemental’s society. As stated and shown in the movie, the city wasn’t made with them in mind. Thus, they need to be a lot more careful and mindful of their surroundings than people of the other three elements.
This aspect of the film has clear parallels to the experiences of immigrants in a new place, but also with people who have disabilities. Ember, the movie’s protagonist, is a Fire person. This means she has to be careful when navigating things like the waterfalls prevalent around Element City, and even her own home’s plumbing system — similarly to how people with physical disabilities may need a wheelchair or certain protective gear to keep them safe and/or mobile in a world which was not designed for them to thrive.
Therefore, the Fire folks tend to stick to their own corner of the city, dubbed “Fire Town.” This name may come across as generic at first, until one realizes that the area bears resemblance to the sections of big cities often deemed “Chinatown” or “Koreatown,” where immigrants from those countries often gravitate to once they’ve arrived. The animators incorporated different real world items associated with each element into Element City. This is especially evident in the Fire Town scenes, which see pots as buildings and fireplace elements used as furniture. Some of these might not be obvious to viewers right away, but they further stick out after the movie shows off more of Element City. The city is much more focused on other elements — especially Water, which is most likely due to it being the “founding” element of the city.
Sohn himself is a second-generation immigrant to the United States, having arrived with his parents from Korea at a young age. Elemental, he emphasizes, is a tribute to them, made even more poignant by the fact that both of them passed away during the film’s production. He has also included some anecdotes from both his own life and the lives of other Pixar staff members — many of whom are also immigrants — in the movie’s script. One comes in the form of a comedic cutaway, where Ember’s grandmother’s dying words are revealed to be “Marry fire!” This is just like, as Sohn told the Toronto audience, his own grandmother’s dying words, which were “Marry Korean!” Much like how Ember has a romance with Water creature Wade in the movie, Sohn did not, in fact, end up marrying Korean.
Sohn ended the presentation by answering a question about the lessons he has carried from his long history of over two decades working at Pixar to the production of Elemental. He shared an anecdote from the making of the first feature he was involved with at the studio, Finding Nemo. Back then, he didn’t understand how to storyboard a scene, and ended up doing much more work than necessary. This led to the movie’s director ripping up all his work, save for one drawing. Sohn said:
“After that, I was sort of crushed by, like, the critical-ness of it, and I had to make a choice from there. […] Do you put your heart into this every time you go up [with work on a project]? Do you stay vulnerable every time you pitch something? Or do you close up, and just go, ‘Nope! The movie projector’s closing!’ […] The choice I made was [to always] be vulnerable, to be open to it. That’s the only way that truth or authenticity amounts [to anything].”
Sohn then went on to say he has never gotten used to this kind of rejection, but it has been important for him to stay passionate and put his heart into all of his work anyway. Knowing this, it makes sense that Elemental is such a personal story for him — it’s just a shame that the marketing isn’t communicating that to the public. This has a good chance of connecting with people in the same way other movies like Coco, Encanto, and especially Turning Red did, but many Disney fans are trained to skip cinema trips and wait for projects to hit Disney+.
Unless future trailers are able to showcase the deeper story of Elemental, this movie may be in for a rough time at the box office. Hopefully the announcement of its selection as this year’s closing film of the Cannes Film Festival is a sign that Disney has confidence in the film, meaning it will be promoted as such as its theatrical release date draws closer.