Watch: Elemental director Peter Sohn discusses film's approach to mental health
Peter Sohn, the director of Pixar's new film Elemental, hopes that the animated film will help audiences — particularly its younger viewers — learn about the importance of mental health and understanding "where your emotions are coming from", he tells Yahoo UK.
The film, which premieres in the UK on Friday, 7 July, follows fire person Ember Lumen (Leah Lewis) as she tries to stop her father's shop from being shut down after an explosive meltdown threatened the structural integrity of the building and brought its safety issues to the notice of city inspector Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie).
Ember and Wade are both ruled by their feelings, for Ember it is her unexplained anger and for Wade his oversensitivity leads him to cry over anything, meaning they represent female rage and emotional men — feelings that people, particularly children, can be forced to ignore.
"It's always important to really understand where your emotions are coming from because mental health is so real," Sohn says when asked about this aspect of the story.
"Those traits were just something that naturally started because of the elements. But, at the same time, assigning genders to each element we talked about a lot, but they had started off [as] a fire lady and a water boy without even thinking about those other traits.
"You start with just the rough [outline], they're nothing, they're just little seeds and they just evolve, and all these conversations are happening and it became important."
Sohn adds: "It wasn't just 'it's good to talk about emotions' it was the [fact that] empathy that allowed us to connect became the louder thing. But it opened the door to those conversations too."
The film's poignant origin story
Elemental came to Sohn after he was left a "blubbering mess" when thanking his Korean parents at an event, where he became overcome with gratitude for all they'd done for him by immigrating to the US.
"I invited them to this little ceremony where they wanted me to talk about the arts," he explains.
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"I went on stage [and] I turned around to see my parents sitting there, they were very emotional and proud and it filled me up with this gratitude seeing them, and because they come from another country and had no money and didn't know the language, I thanked them on stage.
"I said 'thank you mum and dad, for all the sacrifices that you made', and I lost it. I was this blubbering mess, but it was a gesture I was very grateful to do.
"And I came back to Pixar, told people that story and they're like, 'hey, that's the movie you want to do' so that incident is the heart of it: Thanking our parents and the people that have sacrificed for us."
The moment certainly played a key part in the story, as Ember fears becoming a disappointment to her parents if she doesn't follow the path they set out for her, and later realises that wanting to branch out on her own won't mean she does so as both sides of the family learn to share their gratitude with one another.
Pixar is 'constantly re-evaluating' what it does
Pixar "has always had a history of trying to push" boundaries, Sohn reflects, including what animation means as a medium and proving its worth when it is regularly dismissed as being just for kids.
The filmmaker references Wall-E and Up as examples of Pixar doing something unexpected, adding that while there were some fears kids might not relate to these stories: "Humans are humans. Truths are truths. Fun is fun, and what's so nice now is all the different point of views that are getting to open up and tell their stories, it's just getting more diverse."
With animated films like the Spider-Verse franchise also changing the way the medium is seen and what it can represent, Sohn says of Pixar's future: "We were trying very hard to make characters that people hadn't seen before, and Spider-Verse is incredible.
"One of my school friends did the first one [Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse] and it's all part of trying to push the medium on every perimeter of this work, and there's a lot of diverse ideas at Pixar that are are really exciting that I can't wait to see come to fruition."
Denise Ream, the film's executive producer, adds: "I would say we do have a a nice history of constantly re-evaluating what we're doing and the stories we're telling, as Pete was mentioning. I hope we continue to do that."
Elemental is in UK cinemas from Friday, 7 July.
Watch the trailer for Elemental