'Elemental' evolved from 'Godfather' riff, director says

Wade and Ember learn they can still touch even though they're water and fire. Photo courtesy of Disney/Pixar
1 of 5 | Wade and Ember learn they can still touch even though they're water and fire. Photo courtesy of Disney/Pixar

LOS ANGELES, Sept. 25 (UPI) -- Director Peter Sohn said the animated film, Elemental, on DVD, Blu-ray and 4K UHD Tuesday, began as a story of warring families. As animated movies take years to create, that seed evolved into a very different film from Sohn's original concept.

The movie explores a world populated by the four elements: fire, water, earth and air. Ember (voice of Leah Lewis) is the daughter of fire parents Bernie (Ronnie Del Carmen) and Cinder (Shila Ommi).


Their family business originally played a different role in the story.

"There was a version where Ember's family ran a sanitation company," Sohn said. "The fire characters ate all the garbage of the city."

In the final version of the film, Bernie and Cinder immigrate to Element City and open a shop that sells fire memorabilia. They still expect Ember to take over the business, an expectation with which Ember struggles throughout the movie.


The family business is now just a launching point for the story. In the early drafts, it was the central issue.

"It was a gigantic business and it almost turned into this passing of the torch, a la Godfather almost," Sohn told UPI in a recent Zoom interview. "This large business was going to be passed to Ember."

Ember meets water man Wade (Mamoudou Athie) when she causes a pipe to burst in their basement. Wade flows into the pipes and reports building code violations to the city.

Ember then journeys deeper into Element City to convince Wade not to shut down the family store. In the process, fire and water learn how to get along.

Ember and Wade still represent a Romeo and Juliet relationship as opposite elements. However, the early story made Wade and Ember's family bitter rivals, also like The Godfather's Corleones and the Barzini and Tattaglia families.

"She would fall in love with Wade who worked in an opposing company, very much like the Capulets and Montagues," Sohn said. "Then she was just going to war with a father that was just trying to put a wedge between the two of them."

In the story now, Ember's adventure with Wade helps her decide whether she even wants to run her family's store. Ember's opportunity to pursue a different career was inspired by Sohn's own.


Sohn's parents immigrated from Korea and ran grocery stores and other shops. He went to art school instead of taking over the family businesses.

"I was definitely more rebellious than Ember was," Sohn said. "I didn't want anything to do with the store, but I definitely remembered telling them about this art form."

One of Ember's fiery characteristics is a volatile temper. Ember lashes out at customers and even Wade, but finds that only exacerbates conflicts.

When Ember asks for help and admits she's vulnerable, she finds people more open to cooperation.

"The little secret ingredient to that is empathy," Sohn said. "Just a spoonful of it will do."

If Ember and Wade's adventure in Element City teaches viewers to be more patient and tolerant of others, it would be a bonus, Sohn said.

The intention, Sohn said, was simply to create characters to whom people could relate, even though they are made of pure earth, air, fire and water.

"I never wanted it to be a message movie," Sohn said. "We're all trying to live together in harmony and then missed connections arise and agitations happen."

One of the sources of Elemental conflict is characters' tendency to see conflicts in binary terms. Wade teaches Ember how to compromise.


"There's always these two options, but then when you mix them, a new option could appear," Sohn said. "It was always about that magic of other possibilities."

Elemental still focuses on the relationship between water and fire. Sohn said there could be just as much potential in stories about earth and air.

"There are so many other storylines and characters we had developed for different versions that could fill up a whole other movie," Sohn said.

Elemental opened in theaters in June and digital editions available since August include bonus features showing some deleted characters. Since Elemental premiered on Disney+ Sept. 13, it has been the No. 1 new film premiere of the year.

And although Wade and Ember only visit earth and air sections of Element City briefly, enough design went into those cities that another story could be set in them.

"The air and earth sections of town, I've always felt we just had a little taste of it," Sohn said.

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