As a rule, we make it a point to have zero expectations when we see a film — that way; we get less disappointed if we find it a bad experience (it works in other aspects of life, too, really). Thus, we enjoyed ourselves! Everyone came out zimming with energy, talking about this character and that. We played the film’s soundtrack in the car on the way back (which features the famous record pop artist Lauv).
The theme lands on an increasingly popular topic in Pixar and Disney: color representation. Soul (2022), Turning Red (2022) and the newest The Little Mermaid (2023) are some to name a few. From the outside perspective, Elementals is a Pixar classic: the inanimate and daily objects turned animate and alive, made to represent persons and problems in our real lives. This straightforward allegory is what built Pixar up from ground zero — from Toy Story (1995), A Bug’s Life, (1998) to Cars (2006). In this instance, the traditional foundational elements of Eastern culture: Wind, Earth, Water and Fire populate the land, some living harmoniously with each other, some, not so much.
In this beautifully animated film, Ember (played by Leah Lewis) is the daughter of an immigrant fire family, prejudiced by a foreign country that is a startling danger for fire coexistion. Ember and Wade (Mamoudou Athie), a Water elemental, find themselves in an impossible love, while Ember realizes taking over her father’s shop might not be her dream career.
It was shocking to see the masses of negative critique given to the film on opening week, as well as its prediction to flunk the box office, with an opening week of $30 million for the US and Canada. Heightened by its whopping $200 million production budget (in contrast, Pixar and Disney’s Turning Red and Inside Out were both roughly $170 million), it seemed like another consecutive bomb for the animation powerhouses, coming after the flop of Lightyear (2022).
Elementals was birthed a little closer to heart than most; written, produced, and directed by Peter Sohn, a second-generation immigrant from Korea. All his life, his parents ran grocery stores and shops to stay afloat, but instead of keeping up the business, Sohn decided to join an Art school. After a good 20 years in Pixar in almost every department (He was nicknamed Mr. Pixar by some of his colleagues), he was given the opportunity to lead the creation of his own film.
The film took seven years to complete, in which Sohn managed to interview them about their lives as first-generation diaspora — right before they both passed away. However, Sohn persevered with the project, attempting to encapsulate their legacy into the film. Thus, at its release, it was a sorrowful moment to believe that the passion Sohn had put into this film might not have been felt and acknowledged by the audience.
That is until recently, Elementals rose from the ashes, persisting even through the gloomy storm that Barbenheimer (both released in July 21st) brought about to all other screening films, as well as family-oriented films such as Spiderman: Across The Spider Verse (June 2nd) (P.S: Sohn voice acted as Miles’ roommate!) . Elementals not only survived but surpassed its predicted failure, currently sitting on a worldwide box office of $484 million as well as a great many positive reviews.
What changed? A spark in the international market that no one could have seen coming. Little did Sohn know, the nation his parents came from connected deeply to the movie's ethos: Elementals has become Pixar’s most-viewed movie in South Korea, garnering a whopping six million admissions and more on Disney+. Discussing with my small survey group, it was revealed My cousins and I all connected deeply with the orthodox Asian paternal relationship that I found the most refreshing of the show’s representations: from honor-bound filial piety required of children to the heart-wrenching scenes of Ember desiring acknowledgment from her father. It was in this that the South Korean viewers, children and young adults alike found attractive to the movie — a worthy tribute to Sohn’s late parents. All things equal, this aspect is something Sohn can take great pride in etching into Pixar history.
Ultimately, Elementals is a powerful tale of hardship, unconventional love, and redemption, covering topics such as miscegenation, immigrant prejudice and cultural appreciation. It may not have had a great start, but it indeed went the mile to tell the blazing story the world needs.