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‘Elemental’: The Little Film That Could

When director Peter Sohn and Pixar set out to create a 3DCG world in which a fiery young woman found a way to get together with a fun, ‘go-with-the-flow’ guy, they never dreamed it would take quite some time, slowly but surely, through word of mouth, to successfully find a global audience for their film.

From pandemics to strikes, studio layoffs to canceled projects, production on Elemental has been an uphill battle mired in personal tragedies and industry tumult. But despite considerable challenges above and beyond those normally faced by an animated film of this size, Pixar’s 3DCG feature made it to release and, since its theatrical debut last summer, has achieved considerable success after an unexpectedly slow start.

Nominated for six Annie Awards and an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, not to mention five VES Awards nominations as well, Elemental steams ahead on its awards season run, with Oscar voting taking place Thursday, February 22 through Tuesday, February 27).

And that’s why director Peter Sohn refers to the feature as, “The Little Film That Could.”

“Production for Elemental was painful but, at the same time, joyous, and a real rollercoaster ride,” he says. “Because of Lightyear's performance the year before, it was sort of a big question mark on so many levels as to whether the film would make it. Between the marketing of an original movie, the actual release, and all of that, I was just along for the ride. There was a lot of trust that I was given to try and understand how to get audiences to see the film. Its release was really, really hard. But I wasn't expecting anything either way. I was just waiting. But when it did happen, it shook me. And the idea of what this type of buildup was is something that I'm proud of somehow.”

Elemental follows fire element character Ember, the child of two immigrant parents, as she navigates the pressure of her father’s expectations to take over the family business while at the same time yearning to pave her own path in life. And when she falls for water element building inspector Wade, things become infinitely more complicated. The movie had all the makings of success: romance, internal torment, existential crisis, breaking of stereotypes, and immaculate glasswork craftsmanship. Still, Elemental did a lot of swimming upstream while dust was getting kicked up at the corporate level. It’s an unusual journey for a feature film coming out of Pixar, but these were unusual times.

And, at the beginning of Elemental’s worldwide release, the response wasn’t what its team had hoped for.

“The idea of what word of mouth is, and the idea of someone telling someone else not only that they enjoyed the film, but they should go see it in a theater, fulfilled pieces of me that I didn't realize were there,” shared Sohn. “You make these films with a group of people, all with the intent for that connection, and we're doing it on these big screens to immerse the audience. And when Elemental didn't connect in those first couple of weekends, it began to mean a lot of different things to a lot of us–what it meant for the Pixar brand, what it meant for feature animation, what it meant for budgets of this scale, what it meant for even the sort of themes in the movie. Could you do a romance? Is that just a big killer? All these different things started coming up.”

Reviews from film critics were especially unforgiving when it came not to the film’s visuals, but to the script itself, which had come from a deeply personal place for Sohn, referencing his own family of immigrants and marriage to someone who didn’t share the same cultural history.

“It really came from a sincere place,” he notes. “So many of the crew members had these experiences, and I was hoping that the love story itself could tie an audience in to begin to understand some of these first-generation and second-generation issues. And now I wonder, because internationally is where we did so well, what kind of impact that had on the film’s growth?”

Despite initial criticism, Elemental’s eventual success could be attributed to its themes, its fun yet emotional storytelling, and the production team’s ability to craft a complex and ultimately enjoyable film after weathering so many storms that hit animated projects hard, without remorse, over the last three years. Or it could just be that, when given the opportunity, a good film, like sweet cream, eventually rises to the surface and finds an audience.

Sohn has also been in this business a long time, since the late 90s when he worked as an animator on another underrated film, The Iron Giant, and says he keeps a sort of Rolodex of lessons he’s learned from other directors he’s worked with, such as Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter, and Brad Bird. His vault of wisdom–from his own experience and that which he’s gleaned from others–undoubtedly played a role in Elemental’s resilience under fire.

“It has a lot to do with problem solving day-to-day, whether it's directing voices, helping with the story, or carving performances with animators,” says Sohn. “There are always your instincts and experiences mixed with some of the voices that you hear from the Rolodex. I also draw on those voices a lot in the unknown, once I hit moments in the production where I have no experience in this next move or this next decision."

But as unusual as it is for a Pixar film to have such a soft opening, Sohn notes he had been through this before, with The Good Dinosaur.

“There was some experience for me in terms of how to develop a sort of skin to protect myself through some of this,” he shares. “But at the same time, because it was so personal and it was a very different experience than Good Dino, I got caught in very vulnerable places where even the Rolodex wasn't helpful, and there were some directors and friends that began to find ways to support me that I will be forever grateful for.”

Sohn continues, “That Rolodex isn't just some little thing. It's this collection of souls that are there to continue to lift you up.”

The experience with Elemental has not only challenged Sohn’s tough director’s skin but has also called into question Pixar’s place amidst a now vast array of studios that are seemingly breaking new ground in animation every month. Where Pixar once held a royal seat at the top of the animation industry, it’s now joined by many others and is being challenged more than ever to find new ways to set itself apart.

To Sohn, there are, as he puts it, “tent poles” to a Pixar film that help secure its place on top of that mountain.

“The focus on characters and character animation is part of that,” he says. “But I feel like an ingredient that really differs Pixar from a lot of studios is that there is this sort of Trojan horse of a personal experience underneath the hood of their films that can be very much a unique fingerprint. The hope of that fingerprint is that it's universal, that it can connect to a large audience. But a lot of the films here come from real-life places. Not to say that a lot of the other movies don't, but Elemental is an original film that came from my parents and my marrying someone who wasn't Korean. I don’t know how many of the other animated films I could say have that kind of ingredient in their films.”

At times, the director has even wondered if he got too personal with Elemental.

“I have wondered a lot about this,” Sohn says. “My parents passed away during the making of the film. If they hadn't, what would this film have become? Would it have been very different? Would it have been less connected in that way? A lot of it was subconscious.”

This time of year, during award season, one of the things filmmakers aim to do is help audiences, especially industry audiences, look at films with a slightly different lens. And though so many layers of Elemental were rooted in the personal, Sohn pointed out another feature in the film that he’d like people to pay attention to and consider during voting.

“Discovering the cultures of fire and water and a lot of the work that we did to build an immaculate reality is a major part of this film,” he explains. “There are so many pieces of these elements and the cultures that we simply just had to make up, and then there are a lot that were pulled from our lives as we tried creating that balancing act to lead to these character emotions of what it means to leave a culture, what it means to embrace a new one, and what it means to understand how that becomes an identity. That would be a great thing for audiences to focus on.”

Victoria Davis's picture

Victoria Davis is a full-time, freelance journalist and part-time Otaku with an affinity for all things anime. She's reported on numerous stories from activist news to entertainment. Find more about her work at