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Pixar’s ‘Elemental’ Was Inspired By Director Peter Sohn’s Korean Family

In Elemental City, the inhabitants strictly adhere to the primary principle that the four fundamental elements—fire, earth, air, and water—must remain distinct and never intertwine. Disney and Pixar’s upcoming animated movie, Elemental, offers a fresh perspective on these four elements, inspiring viewers to embrace life beyond their comfort zones. 

Geeks of Color was invited to an exclusive event to screen a few scenes from Disney and Pixar’s latest film Elemental (due for release on June 16, 2023). After the screening, we had the opportunity to hear from the team behind the project. Director Peter Sohn drew on his own experiences to convey a significant message about diversity in this highly anticipated animated movie. Sohn reveals that his personal journey as an immigrant served as the primary source of inspiration behind the film’s creation. 

(Courtesy of Disney/Pixar)

Sohn spoke about how his parents immigrated to America and how they became the first piece of his inspiration: 

“My parents came here from Korea in the late sixties, early seventies, to New York and they didn’t have a lot of money. They had no family. They didn’t speak any English and, but they managed to create a beautiful life here in the Bronx…My dad owned a grocery store. I have so many memories of growing up in this shop and all my dad’s customers came from everywhere and like my parents, they left their homes to come to a new land and they all were mixing into beautiful little neighborhoods with their cultures and the languages and so from that came this.”

Elemental unfolds as a fire couple arrives in Element City, where they establish their lives in a neighborhood brimming with others of their kind. They start a business called “The Fireplace” and raise their daughter, Ember. As Ember matures, she believes she is ready to take over the family store, but her father insists she must first learn to manage her temper.

(Courtesy of Disney/Pixar)

This charming premise for Elemental takes an exciting turn when Ember encounters a water person named Wade, with whom she must collaborate to save her father’s enterprise.Ember’s fiery disposition contrasts starkly with Wade, who is perpetually overwhelmed with emotions. Their opposing natures make their partnership all the more intriguing, as they work together to overcome their differences and achieve their common goal.

Sohn shared that he was inspired by the periodic table:

“When I saw the periodic table of elements when I was a kid, all I thought about was that these were apartment complexes and they all lived next to each other. Platinum lives next to gold, but be careful of mercury because they have toxic relationships. Stories of what these elements were doing in their apartments were just mixing around in my head.”

(Courtesy of Disney/Pixar)

Sohn followed up by stating how the last piece of his story came together: 

“Then the last little piece was my wife, and this experience of marrying someone that wasn’t Korean, or was a non-Korean woman. Because growing up, my grandmother’s dying words were, “Marry a Korean.” You saw a little bit of that in the footage. That comes from a real place and it created all these sort of culture clashes growing up.”

(Courtesy of Disney/Pixar)

Lastly, Sohn explained how all the pieces started to fit together to tell one story: 

“But even with these key pieces in place, we could go anywhere. The possibilities were endless. But until we came up with the idea of opposites attracting, fire and water, we didn’t have a clear focus of the film. Once that was our north star, we could adjust the characters and the obstacles that could happen to them. So with these three key inspirations and our guiding light of opposites attracting, the stories started to come together. I wanted to tell a story for everyone who’s ever made a sacrifice or taken a risk and set it in the hustle and bustle of a crazy city.”

Elemental hits theaters on June 16.

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