Disney-Pixar’s “Elemental” Isn’t Just a Love Story; It’s a Thank-You to the Parents Who Raised You

Disney and Pixar just premiered its newest animated feature film “Elemental” which, in essence, follows the story of a young fire girl who falls in love with someone from the opposite element, a water boy, and struggles to overcome the resulting consequences of their romance. But one shouldn’t judge the movie based on its simple premise alone; “Elemental” is unlike what you may think and contains a depth that one can only discover upon watching it.

In actuality, “Elemental” isn’t just a love story — it’s a story about self-identity, the preservation of one’s culture in a different land, and the hurdle of dating someone from a different ethnic background. Directed by Asian-American filmmaker Peter Sohn, “Elemental” follows a second-generation immigrant who goes on a journey of understanding her heritage and dealing with the pressure of being with someone she’s supposedly naturally incompatible with, to eventually learn that it’s possible to coexist with someone so opposite from her without losing sight of who she is.

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The movie is strongly based on the personal experience of Sohn (who has worked on Academy Award-winning feature films including “Finding Nemo,” “The Incredibles” and “WALL•E,” directed “The Good Dinosaur,” and executive produced “Luca”) and his own relationship with his wife. “I started layering in my relationship with my wife—I’m Korean and she’s American, half Italian,” Sohn said. “I hid the relationship from my parents at first because they—in an old-school way—wanted me to marry someone Korean. My grandmother’s dying words were literally ‘Marry Korean!’”

But the lesson in “Elemental” isn’t the well-intentioned defiance in pursuit of romance. “It’s about understanding our parents as people,” Sohn expressed. Similar to the many movies and shows that are popping up in the last few years that champion Asian narratives and voices, such as “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” “Turning Red,” and “American Born Chinese,” Sohn’s work is crafted around the message of family — of honoring them while also breaking generational cycles to encourage empathy and open-mindedness.

“From that understanding comes an appreciation for the sacrifices that they make for their kids,” Sohn continued. My parents emigrated from Korea in the early 1970s, so I was born there and raised with Korean traditions, language, and culture in the very American New York City. That led to some culture clashes along the way between the first and second generations. I took for granted the trials and tribulations they must’ve experienced.”

“[Telling my story with “Elemental”] was important on many levels for me. I wanted to honor our parents and I feel that gesture alone in and of itself is a big thing,” Sohn added in an exclusive interview with WhenInManila.com. “It’s just being grateful for what our parents have done for us is something that I feel like should be shouted on the mountaintops. It’s just like, ‘Thank you so much for all the sacrifices! Mom, Dad, thank you so much!’ The act of that is a very powerful thing.”

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CANNES, FRANCE – MAY 26: (L-R) Pete Docter, Peter Sohn, Denise Ream and Jim Morris attend the photocall for Disney and Pixar’s “Elemental” during the 76th annual Cannes Film Festival on the Carlton Pier on May 26, 2023 in Cannes, France. (Photo by John Phillips/Getty Images for Disney)

Sohn also revealed that he never would have thought that he’d actually get to make a personal film. But he welcomed this chance to share what he and a lot of people in the AAPI community have been through, or are going through, for everyone else around the world to see and learn about.

“It’s one of my favorite things about art, is that you get to sit or stand or watch or hear in someone else’s shoes in another perspective. Like, why would I want to see something of my own perspective over and over again? You want the richness of that type of point of views in your life. And [“Elemental”] was just a point of view that I felt like was very different from maybe other parent generational trauma films. What I loved about this was that idea of identity mixed with appreciation of one’s culture and what parents have given you through that,” he said.

Producer Denise Ream agreed with Sohn’s sentiment and expressed hope that anyone of all ages and backgrounds can come together to just enjoy and appreciate the movie.

“I want people to be entertained. I want them to love the characters and just enjoy sitting there in the theater with friends, family, and having that sort of connection, that experience, and be together watching it. Just that kind of connection,” she said.

(ALSO READ: What Disney+’s “American Born Chinese” Adds to the Conversation of Asian Identity and Representation)

“Elemental” hits Philippine theaters on June 14, 2023.

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