As a child, Peter Sohn’s whole world was a grocery store in the Bronx. Run by his Korean immigrant parents, the sidewalk was his front yard. The piles of crates were his playroom where G.I. Joe figures would wage war among the cabbages. The future animation director says some of his first drawings were sketches on cardboard in the back office as his mother copied Snoopy cartoons.
Starting the day with early morning deliveries, closing late every night, Sohn’s parents worked punishing hours to give their children opportunities they never had.
Eventually Sohn’s sketches opened doors at Pixar where he became a critical part of the animation studio brain trust. He’s the voice of the talking cat from Lightyear. He was even the inspiration for Russell the scout in Up. Elemental is the first film he directed since The Good Dinosaur.
On its brightly-coloured surface, Elemental may seem like a soggy story of fire-meets-water, but underneath is a tale informed by the immigrant experience and Sohn’s own love story.
The setting is Element City, a bustling metropolis home to creatures of different forces. There’s the puffy cloud-like air residents, talking trees and shrubs that make up the earth community. The bulbous translucent beings that tear up easily are the water residents.
On the outskirts, under the shadow of the monorail, is Firetown, where a community of fire families have taken root. This is where the parents of Ember, Bernie and Cinder, settle to give their child a new life. While air, earth and water live in harmony, the fire people are actively shunned. But the Fireplace, a convenience store Ember’s father built, offers their community a hub. A place to grab treats, purchase mementos from the old country and catch up on gossip.
This is where little Ember spends her days learning to run the store. The fire people have their own distinct accents and heat-resistant clothing. In the back, the ladies coo over the old-fashioned fire soap operas while Ember’s mother performs smoke readings for couples looking to see if they match.
WATCH | Trailer for Elemental:
While the accents and language of Firetown is distinct, part of the inspiration came out Pixar’s own army of animators. Peter Sohn says staff members responded to an open call, sharing stories of growing up in first- and second-generation immigrant families.
The fortune-telling aspect started as a submission from by a South Asian Pixar employee who fell in love with a German. It was astrological guru who helped bring them together.
A dying wish ignored
For Peter Sohn, his Korean roots were a big part of his life growing up. His parents emigrated to America in the late 1960s and were proud Koreans.
According to Sohn, his grandmother’s dying words were “Marry Korean.” In the film, Ember’s grandmother wheezes “Marry fire,” before disappearing in a puff of smoke.
That wasn’t to be the path for Peter Sohn. At the Calfornia Institute of the Arts, Sohn met Anna Chambers, an Italian American illustrator. Sohn says their appreciation of their differences helped them push through the initial culture clash.
In Elemental, it’s Ember and Wade who need to push past their shared assumptions. Ember first meets Wade when the watery city inspector washes into the store’s basement. After Wade sets in motion a chain of events that could close the Fireplace for good, Ember is forced to spend time with the gushing do-gooder. The more time they spend, the better they’re able to see through the fears and assumptions they’ve made.
Part of what sells the high-concept cartoon is the voice casting. Sohn says Leah Lewis as Ember exhibited the kind of smoky street wise quality they needed for a kid raised in a store. For Wade, Sohn says Mamoudou Athie had a cool “go with the flow” energy and the type of open emotional quality they were looking for.
Wade’s mother, Brook, is played by Canadian comedy legend Catherine O’Hara. Sohn said he was nervous to work with her at first, but she was “so charming” and used her improv skills in the voice booth.
Parents pass away during production
While Elemental is very much inspired by Sohn’s parents, they never lived to see the final result. Both of them died during the the long production of the film but aspects of their personalities appear in the final result.
Similar to Ember’s father, Sohn’s dad was a shop owner with thick accent. “My father always did this funny thing where he would mess up idioms,” Sohn said, “Like don’t count your chickens before they box. We put those types of lines in the film.”
Although he still misses them, he says he’s pleased that they live on in Elemental.
“There’s a little of them that will be in this movie forever.”