It’s easy to imagine the wind having attitude or fire being angry. A happy bunch of flowers could absolutely brighten the day of a lonely pot of dirt. And water might be calm and collected one day and in a big hurry the next. What if the elements we all know were alive?
Disney and Pixar’s Elemental is an all-new, original feature film set in Element City, where Fire-, Water-, Earth- and Air residents live together. The story introduces Ember, a tough, quick-witted and fiery young woman, whose friendship with a fun, sappy, go-with-the-flow guy named Wade challenges her beliefs about the world they live in and the person she wants to be.
The story started with director Peter Sohn drawing of a Fire character and Water character interacting. He imagined an unexpected friendship between them—a relationship sure to trigger awkwardness, banter and funny missteps. He then started thinking about his relationship with his wife—he’s Korean and she’s American, half Italian. Sohn would then hide his relationship from his parents at first because they—in an old-school way—wanted him to marry someone Korean. His grandmother’s dying words were literally ‘Marry Korean!’
Sohn’s old-school parents eventually came around, finding they had a lot in common with their eventual daughter-in-law’s family. More importantly, they also inspired another aspect of the story: understanding our parents as people. From that understanding comes an appreciation for the sacrifices they make for their kids.
His parents emigrated from Korea in the early 1970s, he was born there and raised with Korean traditions, language, culture in the very American New York City. That led to some culture clashes along the way between first and second generation. He took for granted the trials and tribulations they must’ve experienced.
Like Sohn, Ember is a second-generation immigrant—only her parents emigrated from Fireland to Element City where Ember is born and raised. She goes on a journey of understanding her own identity and with that, the meaning what her parents have given her.
A highlight of Ember’s journey—and in many ways the impetus for it—is a fun and fateful friendship with a water guy named Wade. In the beginning, Ember has disdain for the city, but Wade helps her begin to fall in love with everything it has to offer.
Set in a city that brings elements of different backgrounds together, Elemental demonstrates that opposites do indeed attract. It’s a story about relationships—between Fire and Water, between parents and their kids and between all of us and our neighbors who might not look like us. It’s part comedy, part family journey and part culture clash wrapped in romance.
In celebration of Elemental, The Koalition spoke to actors Leah Lewis (Ember) and Mamoudou Athie (Wade) about finding love and acceptance in opposites, the complicated relationships within families and more.
“There’s a couple of directors like Pete who really take a lot of risk, but they can manage to do it with a lot of attention to detail, care and acceptance of all ideas. It just cultivates a really beautiful and rich environment and story. Thanks to Pete, all of this is possible,” says Athie.
“It really does begin with Peter Sohn. He created such a great environment for us, and he was so clear about what he wanted from these characters. I think something that was so rare about this specific process was that he came to both of us and was like, ‘These characters are actually a lot of the things I see in you.’ Even though we have earth, air, fire and water, he wrote in different emotions to these characters. It’s just playing like a regular character because they all have intentions, they all have goals, they all have relationships with each other. It was quite easy actually to step into the role of fire and water,” Lewis adds.
Ember Lumen is a clever 20-something Fire woman with a great sense of humor who can be hot-headed at times. What she lacks in patience she more than makes up for in love for her family. As the only child of immigrant parents, Ember is keenly aware of how much they sacrificed to give her a better life. She’s determined to prove herself to them and looks forward to taking over the family business, Fireplace, when her father, Bernie, retires. She is a proud Fire person and is thrilled her father trusts her to someday take over his shop. But then she’s thrown a curveball and it shakes up everything. The curveball, of course, is a Water guy with a go-with-the-flow perspective on life, who inspires her to take a closer look at herself and her hidden creative passions. But this story is not about Ember’s parents saying no—she’s telling herself no.
Lewis empathizes with Ember’s frustrations, allowing the audience to do the same. “Ember is very fiery, but she has a reason for it,” says Lewis. “Her family has worked very hard to provide this life for her in Element City. She wants to prove to her parents that she has become the woman they’ve always wanted her to be. She’s fiercely loyal to her family and fiercely loyal to her life and her identity as a Fire person,” Lewis continues.
“She’s well aware the city wasn’t really made with Fire people in mind. I think that’s part of her edge in the way that she moves around. She’s very cautious and a lot of the elements are cautious around her. If Water meets an Earth element, a bunch of grass might grow on Earth. If Ember bumps into that Earth person, it’s ‘poof’ and all of the grass on him is gone.”
Unlike Ember, Wade Ripple is not afraid to show his emotions—in fact, his emotions are hard to miss. An empathetic, 20-something Water guy, Wade is observant, a good listener and literally bubbling with compassion for others. He is close with his family—a lively and strangely weepy bunch who seek out opportunities to share their feelings. He’s the type of character that will cry at a diaper commercial—he really feels his way through the world. There is beauty within his transparency—literally and figuratively—you can always feel and see what he’s feeling. There’s nothing to hide with Wade.
As their relationship grows, Wade plays two roles for Ember. He represents a safe place that won’t judge, and Wade is also a mirror character—playing off his reflectivity. In many ways, Wade was created to help Ember see herself. He doesn’t exist to teach her anything or guide her in any way, but as a mirror so that Ember could see a new version of herself.
“Sometimes you just need a little nudge,” says Athie. She’s so close on her own. She knows something’s not right [but] she doesn’t quite know why. She [asks], ‘Why can’t I control my temper?’ Then she meets this guy who’s so clear about how he feels about everything because he’s cultivated, and his family’s cultivated that. She sees something and she realizes just by proximity to somebody, just it was just a little nudge, just getting to know him. But he doesn’t really have a ton to do [with] unlocking her by any particular action. It’s just by them being together they figure things out.”
Lewis adds, “He asks a lot of questions Ember [never] really ever asked herself growing up in the fire community. Everyone’s just fire, everyone’s kind of explosive and that’s just kind of how it is. Clearly, her father says, ‘She burns a little too bright sometimes’, but I don’t think anyone really asks her, ‘Why is that? Why are you exploding that way?’ By just Wade being himself and asking a question she’s never really asked herself, he opens up this huge door for possibility. To see herself in a way is quite beautiful. Even when he calls her beautiful in the film, she sheds a tear. It’s so cool for her to have seen herself through something that she initially thought was so worlds away from her.”
Athie respected the character’s honesty. “Wade is the best—he’s the kind of guy I would like to be,” he says. “I know that sounds strange, but I think his open-heartedness and his willingness to share exactly how he feels all the time is what I aspire to be like. There’s something really beautiful about his earnestness and his acceptance of everyone.
He also found the story and its themes very relatable. “I’m an immigrant myself, so it spoke to me immediately in that sense,” he says. “But the parent-child relationship and that feeling of responsibility to make our parents proud really hit me. My parents are very supportive of me—even when there’s not a lot of reason to be. That sacrifice a parent makes for their children so they can have a better life is something Pete [Sohn] and I connected with very deeply.”
Despite Ember and Wade’s differences and the many reasons why they should never work, Lewis and Athie point out the many similarities and reasons why they can grow and build their lives together. “Some of the ones that just jumped out at me was how much care they had for their family. They both had clearly different upbringings. Wade lost his father and Ember is here trying everything she can to take care of her father. Just because they’re water and fire doesn’t mean they don’t feel the same emotions of love and gratitude,” says Lewis.
“It even starts that way! Wade is in her basement crying over a picture of her family and you can see very early on that it really touched him deeply. For Ember, it’s family or nothing. Even him crying about that kind of gave him an in to let Amber be like, ‘okay, I’ll give this guy a chance for a second,” Lewis adds.
Elemental speaks to all families. We’re all small islands who are different from the next family, but it shows how we’re all the same beyond what makes us appear to be so separate. We care for our children the same as any family. We want our parents to be proud of us. This is a universal story with shared truths and values, even though it focuses on the individual.
“Mamoudou and I have talked about this a lot recently. A lot of the people [who] are close to us are actually quite different from us. People I was really comfortable around when I was younger were kind of just all the same. But now, I find when I meet different people, like even my sister, her and I could not be more different than water and fire. But at the end of the day, we come together on the same basis and the same morale. I have learned so much from people in my life that are different because I don’t have those qualities. Taking away those lessons and being able to accept people for who they are gives you acceptance of your own self and your own unique qualities that could be different to someone else too,” Lewis says.
“Just thinking of my friends. I have a lot of old friends that I’m so so so close to. I’ve learned so much and that’s as a result of them being so vastly different from me. I’ve been forced to learn about new people and exchange different experiences that help you grow. Learning from people that are different from you or just being around people that are different from you, helps you grow. It’s a healthy exchange,” says Athie.
Elemental is now in theaters. Check out our full interview in the video above to learn more about Athie and Lewis’ portrayal of Wade and Ember. Check out the video and the gallery below for even more content!