Pixar director Peter Sohn's latest film, Elemental reflects his own experiences navigating life as the child of immigrants.
"My grandmother's dying words were like, "Marry Korean!," Sohn told ABC News during a Zoom interview.
"My brothers married Korean, everyone in my family has married Korean except me. I didn't do that purposefully, but it was a big no-no in my family. There were years where I couldn't talk about it. There were years where I was trying to figure out how to merge these cultures and a lot of it was hard, but a lot of it was hilarious."
Those experiences fuel Pixar's latest film, Elemental, which is set in the fictional city called Element City, where residents belonging to the four elements of air, earth, fire and water live together. A fire resident, Ember and a water resident, Wade become unlikely friends after a chance encounter, and the film explores the dynamics of opposites attract as their relationship develops.
Sohn says he wanted to explore what the culture clash could be like outside of physical elements, but within community culture as well. One scene depicts characters going to a fire-element matchmaker who can smell true love, a scene that was inspired by Sohn's friend.
"We had a friend that was also going to a matchmaker — she was Indian, marrying a German — and the Indian mother forced them to go to this astrologist, 'to make sure that you guys are a match'," Sohn said.
"The story that she told was so fun and moving to us, that the mother character started to shift more into that."
Sohn is known for directing 2015's The Good Dinosaur, and he also voiced Emile in Ratatouille and the cat Sox in Lightyear. Elemental's voice cast includes Leah Lewis, Mamoudou Athie, and Ronnie del Carmen.
Elemental is another Pixar film that deals with an immigrant family. Turning Red, which was released on Disney's streaming platform DisneyPlus in 2022, also dealt with themes of girlhood through the lens of the Asian diaspora.
Sohn's parents are immigrants, having moved from Korea to New York City in the early 1970s, where he was born. To make the film and story more authentic, the filmmakers spoke to over one hundred first and second generation immigrants about what it was like to pack up and start over completely in another country.
"The experience of hearing people's stories — I think we both found it incredibly inspirational and emotional and just the realization of how many people in the studio have this experience was really striking to me," the film's producer Denise Ream said, adding she hopes viewers find connection to the stories shown in the film.
The filmmakers also discussed what kind of things each elemental district would sell that's unique to them. For fire, that includes items like matchbooks, fire sparklers and ceramics. They also wanted to portray what it's like to have traces of history left behind by different families moving to and from particular neighborhoods.
Sohn says working on the film was therapeutic for him, and that story discussions at Pixar sounded like therapy sessions.
"We're just talking about moments and then you start talking about your life. And then people are like, "Oh my god, I'm so sorry that happened to you", "like, no, no, it's okay." But then like, "oh, that happened to me too." And then all of a sudden, it becomes something real, and then you're starting to flow into the story."
Elemental is part of Sydney Film Festival and will play on June 12 at the State Theatre. It will be released in cinemas June 15.
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