Elemental cast and filmmakers get personal about Pixar's heart-melting rom-com

(Image credit: Disney/Pixar)

"It was inspired by love," director Peter Sohn tells GamesRadar+. "The whole idea started off with, 'What if fire could fall in love with water?'"

We're here to talk all things Elemental, Pixar's first rom-com that sees firecracker Ember and go-with-the-flow Wade form a heart-melting connection – and follows the challenges they face along the way (including the small issue of literally not being able to touch).

"It reminded me so much of me marrying someone that wasn't Korean," continues Sohn. "My family really pressured [me] to 'marry Korean!' And I fell in love with someone that isn't, and that love opened up my family in a way that was really inspiring."

Elemental weaves together the opposites-attract love story of Ember and Wade with a moving, first-generation immigrant tale; Ember's parents came from far away to settle in Element City, a bustling metropolis populated by all four elements. But it's not the paradise it appears: it's a place built for water, not fire, and that comes with huge struggles for fire residents who could be completely extinguished by a rogue wave. Wade and Ember's bond, then, has the odds stacked against it from the start. 

While Sohn's own experiences inspired much of that narrative, 100 other Pixar employees – many of whom ended up working on the movie – also contributed their stories. "250 people emailed us back, and we were only able to talk to 100," says producer Denise Ream. "It was just listening to these stories and hearing the common themes – [they were] funny and emotional – and then real specific stories that really were just hilarious."

In fact, Ember's mother Cinder was directly inspired by one of these tales. Cinder carries out a ritual in the family store which involves two would-be-lovebirds lighting a candle each; if the smoke signals love, they're a perfect match. "A young lighter named Charu Clark, she's an Indian woman, she fell in love with a German guy," shares Sohn. "She was telling us this story – we were riveted – that the family was like, 'It's never going to happen unless you go to India to an astrologist.' And we just didn't know enough about that world. 

"They went, they were trying to get this thing, it was terrifying," he continues. "But then they did their birth charts and everything, and this astrologer said, 'You're a perfect match!' It destroyed us. We were laughing and loving this story, and that inspired Ember's mother;  she's a spiritual advisor, she smells smoke, she smells love, and that was all inspired by her story. There were countless of those kinds of inspirations."

Fire meet (cute) water


(Image credit: Disney/Pixar)

Elemental is very much all about love – both the familial and romantic kind. Pixar, renowned for its heart-string-tugging prowess, had never made an all-out rom-com before: Elemental hits all the hallmarks of the genre with the studio’s typical flair, following Ember and Wade's relationship from their meet cute through an adorable first date and beyond. 

One thing that any rom-com needs above all else is excellent chemistry between its leads. Jurassic World Dominion's Mamoudou Athie lends his voice to Wade, while Ember is voiced by The Half of It's Leah Lewis. Elemental's diametrically opposed duo bounce off each other so perfectly that it might be a surprise to learn that the actors had a significant obstacle in the way of developing that relationship.

"Mamoudou and I were never even in the room together," says Lewis. "But Peter was just an incredible director in being able to lead us to those points." 

"We love Pete, is basically the answer," interjects Athie, which sends the pair on a tangent of praise for their director in a real-life demonstration of that rapport.

"We relate so heavily to these characters," adds Lewis. "And the way Peter put his 1000% in, we equally and separately did the same thing. So, I feel like that chemistry you're feeling is just us really relating to the characters and giving it all we got." 

But while Ember and Wade grow ever closer, there's always something holding Ember back – her father's distrust of water residents, and her own belief that she needs to take over the family store once her dad retires. After all, Ember's parents gave up everything to give her a life in Element City. 

"I don't take it lightly in the best way," says Lewis of being part of that narrative. "The fact that we're able to tell these real life stories, ones that are dangerously underrepresented, who don't always get to speak out; to be able to portray that story and give people a moment where they're like, 'I'm understood, and I see myself' – and it's not just one culture, it's everyone that can watch this who has ever also felt like an outsider… [It's] just a privilege."

Lewis also encourages Athie to share his own story, which has a great deal in common with Ember's. "I became a citizen [of the US] while we were making this movie. I came with my parents from Mauritania when I was a baby," he explains. "My dad was a diplomat, my mom worked in his office. And they had to leave everything behind, their documents, paperwork, everything, to start life afresh in the States. 

"And as I get older, I understand more fully just how deeply moving that sacrifice is, how tragic it is at the same time, but also how hopeful it all is," he continues. "That immigrant experience is something that I think a lot of people can relate to, the sacrificing for the next generation, or you for yourself. But I'm so grateful for my parents doing what they did for us. This movie is like a thank you to them." 

More than meets the eye


(Image credit: Disney/Pixar)

Of course, nowhere is it more obvious how different Ember and Wade are than in their appearance. Ember is an ever-burning flame, while Wade is a jiggly heap of water. 

"When I first saw Ember, even the little line drawing that Peter showed me from the beginning, I was like, 'She's beautiful,'" reflects Lewis. 

For the actor, the characters' unique looks reflects their different personalities. "Ember has this elegance and this beauty, but you can also see that she's capable of insane strength," she says. "But when you look at Wade, you're just like, 'I want that to be my buddy.'"

Athie's character came with a dinosaur-shaped stamp of approval, too. "I became quite close with Sam Neill during the filming of Jurassic World," says Athie, after some initial reluctance to bring up his former co-star ("you gotta say it now," laughs Lewis when he hesitates). "He's just the loveliest man. I sent him a photo of what Wade looked like, and [he said], 'He looks like how you sound.'" 

"Aww!" says Lewis, with Athie agreeing: "It was really moving to me."

Athie also admits that he wasn't sure a character like Wade would ever be on the cards. "My voice is naturally quite low, so I didn't think that anyone would ever cast me in a part like this," he says. "And I was really grateful that Pete saw me for who I feel like I am."

But bringing these expressive characters – and Element City – to life also came with enormous technical challenges for the production team.

"We thought fire was going to be more difficult than water," says Ream. "So, we started with Ember… Pete was very clear that he didn't want it to be like [The Incredibles character] Jack-Jack, a person on fire, she had to be fire."

That came with its own particular considerations. "How do you get that fire simulation to perform and emote?" Ream adds. "That was what we spent a lot of time doing. We had to stylize that fire because we didn't want it to look realistic, but it still had to feel like fire. We started with her and then moved on to Wade, our water character. And he proved to be so difficult, because water is always hard." 

Lewis and Athie are especially in awe of the creative team's efforts. "The way the animators have done it, to actually make fire and water come alive – I had no idea what that was going to look like," says Lewis. "In the beginning, sometimes it looked funny or scary; there is a lot of humor and there are moments when Ember blows up into a fire wall. But they just did the impossible."

"It's hard for me to really imagine," adds Athie. "I've never worked like these animators have worked. I've just never done anything to that level of dedication. For seven years, just figuring it out, until they get to this moment." 

Naturally, that hard work more than pays off: Element City is nothing short of stunning, while each character pops with vibrant personality. The best place for such a dazzling visual feast is the cinema then, and Elemental is bucking a burgeoning Pixar trend by heading exclusively to theaters instead of premiering on Disney Plus

"So much of the world of the city alone is magnificent on the big screen," says Sohn. "You're really immersed and getting to see all those details. But also, sharing the laughs and the emotions with a group of people in a room is something very important to us." With a film about love, there's no better place to see it than surrounded by others. 

Elemental arrives in UK cinemas this July 7 and is currently in US theaters. For more, check out our guide to all the upcoming major movie release dates for everything else 2023 has in store. 

Molly Edwards
Entertainment Writer

I'm an Entertainment Writer here at GamesRadar+, covering all things film and TV for the site's Total Film and SFX sections. I previously worked on the Disney magazines team at Immediate Media, and also wrote on the CBeebies, MEGA!, and Star Wars Galaxy titles after graduating with a BA in English.