Pixar has made over 25 films to date, but Elemental is perhaps one of the most obviously Pixar films in recent memory. The animated feature takes place in a city of beings each made of a different element – that being fire, water, earth and air.
It’s the kind of unique worldbuilding that has become a hallmark of the studio that anthropomorphised toys, cars, and human emotions. But Elemental presented its own set of challenges for the Pixar team, which director Peter Sohn and producer Denise Ream explained to the media during a virtual press conference.
Lifehacker AU was lucky enough to sit in on this discussion and we learned a fair few things about the delightful-looking Pixar film.
Pixar’s Elemental: 3 things to know
A movie full of heartfelt themes
Pixar has seen a lot of success over the years in making its inhuman characters feel human with relatable themes and quirks. Elemental is no different.
The movie tells the story of Ember, a sharp young fire woman who is preparing to inherit her parent’s shop, who unexpectedly finds herself falling for Wade, an overemotional water guy.
For Sohn, the story in Elemental was a very personal one, particularly when it came to the deeper underlying themes of immigration.
“When I was growing up, that’s all I knew in New York. My parents had come from another country. The shops where they started were all in immigrant neighbourhoods, and so that’s all I had known. All sort of poor families, but they were all from another place, and so you were just in this very rich, diverse community. That really affected me growing up.”
Sohn attempted to represent this diversity in Elemental by creating the elements as distinct from each other.
“I thought about the elements as separate communities,” he said. “I was trying to capture that idea of people that had come from other places that have gathered to create a life for themselves. And that was the emotional hook for me, was that my parents had come here from another place, a foreign place, to make a better life for us.”
Ream added that this experience resonated with a lot of their colleagues at Pixar, with much of the team being first and second-generation immigrants.
Sohn added that the design of the characters in the film as being elements helped to add that layer of relatability:
“I remember watching movies with my family and the ones that we found a way of connecting to were some of the characters that were more anthropomorphic,” the director said. “It wasn’t about race or anything, it was just about the character.
“When I was thinking about these elements, I thought that was another gateway for all people to be able to see something and try to connect to it just through this world of elements,” he added.
The design of Elemental is such a huge aspect of the film. The landscape and detail within Element City are a highlight. It bears parallels to stories like Disney’s Zootopia or even Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Interestingly, Sohn said they actually drew inspiration from Star Wars for the design of the world.
“I really believe in this creation concept called the ‘immaculate reality’,” he explained. “It was a phrase that I had heard from George Lucas on the making of Star Wars, where they were designing things knowing that they had a history to it, but the audience would never get to know that history. But because of that, it would make the world feel more real because things had a history to them.”
Sohn added that Roman Holiday and Amelie also served as inspirations for the aesthetic of the film, in particular, the ways the film could showcase Element City as a person.
Elemental has quite a proficient voice cast, but when it came to finding the leads of Ember (Leah Lewis) and Wade (Mamoudou Athie), it was two specific pieces of the actors’ work that set them apart from the rest.
“Leah Lewis was in this amazing movie called The Half of It and her performance showed her smoky voice as well as this feisty strength that had a very vulnerable side to it,” he said.
“And then for Mamoudou, I saw this film called Uncorked where he showed this really sort of nerdy sort of flirtation that was really sweet and innocent.”
You’ll be able to check out Elemental for yourself when it releases in Australian cinemas on June 15.