By Zach Johnson
Opposites react in the just-released teaser trailer for Elemental, an all-new, original feature film from Pixar Animation Studios releasing on June 16, 2023. Set in Element City, where fire-, water-, land- and air-residents live together, Elemental centers on Ember (voiced by Leah Lewis), a tough and fiery young woman, and Wade (voiced by Mamoudou Athie), a fun, sappy, go-with-the-flow guy.
Director Peter Sohn says Elemental is inspired by his formative years in New York City. “One piece is that there were fun times and hard times in my family,” he says. After his parents emigrated from Korea in the early 1970s, they built a grocery store in the Bronx, a neighborhood bustling with different cultures, languages, and people—much like Element City. While Ember and Wade may not appear to be compatible, Sohn says that’s the point: “The other piece is that I fell in love with someone who isn’t Korean—and my parents really wanted me to marry someone Korean—so there was a bit of a culture clash. Those two pieces of my life formed what would later become Elemental.”
Element City is made up of diverse inhabitants, including Ember and Wade, who will soon discover something elemental: how much they actually have in common. “The concept of the city itself started off with Ember,” Sohn tells D23: The Official Disney Fan Club. “We thought, ‘What’s the best city we can build to support Ember’s journey of identity and belonging?’ It started by thinking about a city that would be hard for fire, and so we based it off of water. The idea is that Water got to this area first, and then Earth came, so it became a delta. Then, they built a water infrastructure with water canals and elevated water channels everywhere, making it even tougher for Ember. Then, Air came in after that, and Fire was one of the last groups to come into the city.”
In other words, Sohn says, “It’s not the easiest for Ember.”
Life gets a little easier—and better—when Ember drops her headphones and her hand grazes Wade’s on the subway. “We wanted to create a good introduction to Ember and Wade’s possible relationship,” Sohn says. “There’s a little drop on Ember’s hand to remind you, ‘Oh, yeah, they can’t mix very well.’ It’s a subtle thing, but there’s a little smile at the end; there’s something there. What is that? It’s just a tease.”
Ember and Wade have instant chemistry, despite their seemingly obvious differences. “When I first pitched this story and started developing it, I asked myself: ‘What’s fire?’” Sohn tells D23. “People can see it as a temper. People can see it as passion. As a practical thing, fire burns and sparks—but what does it mean to burn bright? There are all these ingredients to what we already perceive as fire, and that started to form Ember’s personality. It’s the same thing for Wade. Water can be transparent. What does that mean? He wears his emotions on his sleeve. He goes with the flow. That helped form these personalities that were already pretty opposite, and then we had to find that Venn diagram of where they overlapped. That’s the hopeful magic. I hope people can buy into the sparks, the chemical reaction, that could form a relationship.”