‘Elemental’ Footage Reveals a Culture Clash Story Bursting with Color and Emotion

From director Peter Sohn (The Good Dinosaur), Elemental is Pixar Animation Studios’ 27th feature film. While the themes of opposites attract are quite literal, the film also explores the experiences of growing up as a child of first-generational parents. And The Nerds of Color joined their fellow journalists to preview some footage at Pixar Animation Studios. There, we learned about how Sohn’s latest film and how culture clashes and opposites attract play into it.

UNCHARTED WATERS — In Disney and Pixar’s “Elemental,” fiery young woman Ember (voice of Leah Lewis) is invited to join go-with-the-flow guy Wade (Mamoudou Athie) at his family’s apartment for dinner. Ember quickly realizes that their family dynamics are vastly different from her own—and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Directed by Peter Sohn (“The Good Dinosaur,” “Party Cloudy” short) and produced by Denise Ream (“The Good Dinosaur,” “Cars 2”), Disney and Pixar’s “Elemental” releases on June 16, 2023. © 2023 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

The first thing that came to mind when I previewed the Elemental footage was that seeing an original Pixar story on the big screen for the first time since the pandemic was great. Seeing films like Soul, Luca, and Turning Red on Disney+ had its emotional impact but did have the same visually striking experience one would get when watching them in a theater. So the colors pop differently, and the sound has a lot more power to it. Visually, there’s this combination of cartoony textures blending in with real-life science.

Physics plays a huge role in how these characters interact with each other and their surrounding environments. For example, if a water element accidentally sneezes on an earth element, the earth element will grow flowers. And if something passes through an Air element, they would go poof. So it’s difficult for Fire elements to make friends considering anything they touch would be turned into steam or burn to ash. But it’s not as though the fire characters are all bad, as they can solder pipes together and make glass. So the film needed to establish these rules while showing how far they are willing to bend them.

We screened the film’s opening, where two anthropomorphic flames, an ambitious Bernie (Ronnie del Carmen) and his pregnant wife Cinder (Shila Ommi), are immigrating to Elemental City. It’s where hard work and determination can make your dreams come true. Their arrival by ship echoes the millions of immigrants who arrived on the shores of Ellis Island in the 1920s. 

And as they arrive, they have the same look anyone has when seeing something entirely new for the first time. It’s the visual representation of the sacrifices parents make when they make those life-changing decisions and work to achieve dreams of a better place for their family in their new home.

I can only imagine what that was like for my parents and others who share similar experiences, especially when xenophobia plays a role in adapting to a new world. Scenes reveal how Bernie and Cinder were turned away from securing housing by Earth, Air, and Water elemental landlords. As you can imagine, giving a place to an element that could set a building ablaze isn’t ideal. However, it sends a clear message about the racism that we often see today when renters are trying to secure housing.

But that didn’t deter Bernie or Cinder, who eventually turned a hollowed-out Brownstone building into their new home and place of business. As such, their newborn flame, Ember, has a strong connection to her home. There’s even a tender moment where they bless their new home with a symbolic blue flame they took from their native home.

FIREPLACE DREAMS — In Disney and Pixar’s “Elemental,” fiery young woman Ember (voice of Leah Lewis) has worked alongside her father in the family shop, Fireplace, for as long as she can remember. Someday soon, her father will retire and Ember will take over—at least that’s what they’ve been planning for years. Directed by Peter Sohn (“The Good Dinosaur,” “Party Cloudy” short) and produced by Denise Ream (“The Good Dinosaur,” “Cars 2”), Disney and Pixar’s “Elemental” releases on June 16, 2023. © 2023 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

The other footage established Ember’s (Leah Lewis) and Wade’s (Mamoudou Athie) personalities. A determined Ember wants to continue the family business, but her father is unsure if she’s ready because of her temperamental nature around customers. But when she beats her father’s delivery record, he offers her the opportunity to run the shop independently during their red dot sale. The only problem is that a barrage of demanding and impatient customers ignites her anger and frustration. So she seeks refuge below to let out all of that fire that’s been building within her. The problem is the pipes burst when she lets out all that heat. As such, a stream of water comes out, causing parts of her face to be extinguished. After soldering a few of the damaged pipes, she discovers a water elemental named Wade traveled through the pipes and washed up in her basement. Wade is very observant and tends to wear his heart on his sleeve. So every time he sees a violation or Ember mentions something that her dad did without the proper paperwork, he feels terrible that he has to write her multiple tickets. 

CATCHING AIR — In Disney and Pixar’s “Elemental,” fire-, water-, land-, and air-residents live together in a place called Element City. Many of the elements are big fans of Air Ball—a sport kind of like basketball, if basketball were played in the air and the hoops moved. Teams like the Cropdusters and Windbreakers are made up of air-athletes—they may look fluffy, but they can be downright stormy during the games. Directed by Peter Sohn (“The Good Dinosaur,” “Party Cloudy” short) and produced by Denise Ream (“The Good Dinosaur,” “Cars 2”), Disney and Pixar’s “Elemental” releases on June 16, 2023. © 2023 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

So as soon as Ember tries to convince Wade not to report those violations back to his boss, he escapes the way he came in. Soon a chase ensues, with Ember going outside the fire district and into Elemental City. Ember sleeps outside a City Hall office, hoping to convince Gale, Wade’s inspector, to be lenient on some of the violations. However, Gale isn’t there. But Wade is happy to help Ember find his boss at the Cyclone Arena, where the Windbreakers, her favorite Airball team, are in the playoffs. So she attends the game with Wade. However, she has no patience for Gale’s enthusiasm for the game. The sequence is fun as Air elements, shaped like clouds, throw the ball around into these floating baskets. Moreover, we see how Ember discovers there’s much more to Wade than she initially thought. And we get to see a little more of how physics plays a role in the film, as Ember and Wade cannot give high fives because of their contrasting elements or how the water elementals start to boil as soon as Ember passes by them.

A third scene contains a meet-the-parents moment where Wade invites Ember to meet his very welcoming mom at an apartment that looks like a Galileo thermometer. And since everything is made of water, there are multiple floatation seats and tables to keep everything from sinking. So, she has to stand on one of the chairs, but be very cautious of not moving, considering the moment she steps off of it; she could be extinguished. 

GOOD VIEWS – In Disney and Pixar’s “Elemental,” fire-, water-, land-, and air-residents live together in a place called Element City. It’s a diverse city, featuring architecture, transportation and landmarks created by and for each of the different elements. But since the fire-residents were the last to immigrate here, it’s not yet completely comfortable for a fiery young woman like Ember (voice of Leah Lewis) to navigate. Directed by Peter Sohn (“The Good Dinosaur,” “Party Cloudy” short) and produced by Denise Ream (“The Good Dinosaur,” “Cars 2”), Disney and Pixar’s “Elemental” releases on June 16, 2023. © 2023 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Elemental City was never meant to look like one city, but instead, pull its inspirations that would help service the homes of each character. For example, so many of the Brownstone buildings you see are homages to Sohn’s home during his youth. The streets of the water district are reminiscent of Italian canals. And the Cyclone Stadium looks like the Chase Arena, where the Golden State Warriors play.

Each elemental district also differs, with water elementals living in apartments with cascading waterfalls on the side. In contrast, earth elements look like terrariums, with some having more clay-like textures. And fire elementals live in brownstone buildings because the bricks can withstand the heat they are emitting.

Of course, when talking about a film like Elemental, where the characters are made of earth, fire, air, and water, the animation allows Pixar to play with physics and stay true to their nature. So not only is the surrounding environment pushed and very stylish, the characters look new, and unlike anything the studio has done before.

FIRE AND WATER – Set in a city where fire-, water-, land-, and air-residents live together, Disney and Pixar’s “Elemental” introduces Ember, a tough, quick-witted and fiery young woman whose friendship with a fun, sappy, go-with-the-flow guy named Wade challenges her beliefs about the world they live in. Featuring the voices of Leah Lewis and Mamoudou Athie as Ember and Wade, respectively, “Elemental” releases on June 16, 2023. © 2022 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

And while there are many characters that we can expect to see, Elemental follows two. The first is the fiery young woman Ember (Leah Lewis) and an emotional water guy named Wade (Mamoudou Athie). The unlikely pairing plays into the idea of opposites attract. The two make for an unlikely pair. Not just because the elements extinguish each other on contact but because their personalities are different. Ember is quite temperamental, especially under immense pressure from demanding and impatient customers. But she loves the life she has and wants to continue the family business. In contrast, Wade tends to wear his heart on his sleeve. His observant nature makes it easy for him to connect with others.

Other characters include Ronnie del Carmen as Ember’s soon-to-be-retired dad, Bernie; Shila Ommi as Ember’s love-seeking mom, Cinder; Wendi McLendon-Covey as Wade’s stormy and Air-Ball-loving boss, Gale; Catherine O’Hara as Wade’s welcoming mom, Brook; Mason Wertheimer as Ember’s admiring earth neighbor, Clod; and Joe Pera as an overgrown city bureaucrat, Fern.

As for the science of opposites attracting, the preview we saw had plenty of fun with the physics as their interactions. For example, Ember’s touch turns Wade’s hand into steam or Wade’s overly emotional outburst of teams putting out Ember’s face. There are even times when people are actively avoiding Ember. For instance, whenever she walks by water people, they start to boil. Not because they’re mad but because that happens when you introduce a heat source to water.

So the animation rigs for these characters are different from any other that Pixar as done before. Previous characters had an anatomical structure to them. Even the monsters could be based on humans in the way that they moved. But for the characters of Elemental, it was very different. Each had an unpredictable nature to them. Ember was a flame that was constantly moving. Similar, Wade was constantly rippling. And we all heard how water is notoriously difficult to animate.

But another scene gives us a chance to see how they connect despite their opposing elemental natures. As they walk through a park, Ember walks over an assortment of minerals, which causes her to change the color of her flame. Seeing how impressed he is with that sight, Ember skips over these minerals, causing a flurry of color changes to dance across the screen. This sequence is a testitment to how far the studio as come to push the limits on animation. And as for Wade, we see how far the studio has come to tackling animating water, as he dashes across the pond and suddenly stops to create a rainbow. Again, this sequence plays into the idea of how opposites attract and that there’s more to someone than we think.

So it’s interesting to see how much the animators wanted to stay true to the science while being a bit playful with it and leaning into the opposites attract and first-generational storytelling. Honestly, I can’t wait to see it in its entirety.

An “Elemental” art review to discuss the end credits in the art room, including Production Designer Don Shank, Director Peter Sohn, Rejoin Bourdages, Producer Denise Ream, Jesus Martinez and on Zoom video Laura Meyer and Yu Liu on January 18, 2023 at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, Calif. (Photo by Deborah Coleman / Pixar)

Sohn spoke about how Elemental was a love labor for everyone involved. That message was clearly conveyed when he shared photos of artisans having first-generational experiences like becoming American citizens, having weddings, or cutting the turkey for their first Thanksgiving. So Sohn wanted to capture that spirit and put it into the film. “This movie comes from a very personal place for me,” Sohn said. “It’s about appreciating the sacrifices that our parents have made. And also these unlikely connections that we make in life.”

Pixar has been going through an uphill battle of sorts, with made-for-theatrical films like Soul, Luca, and Turning Red being released on Disney+. And while Lightyear was a safe approach to bringing back its fans into the theaters, it underperformed. However, Elemental‘s originality is a refreshing change of pace for the studio, and with Sohn giving us a story about opposites attract while tying his experiences as the child of immigrant parents into the film, Pixar looks like they are back in their element.

Elemental opens in theaters on June 16, 2023.