Sohn, the son of Korean immigrant parents, grew up in New York with an Asian work ethic and also facing some racial abuse and these elements have partly informed his next film “Elemental.” Set in Element City, where fire, water, land and air-residents live together, the animated film follows Ember, a tough, quick-witted and fiery young woman, whose friendship with a fun, sappy, go-with-the-flow man named Wade challenges her beliefs about the world they live in.
Sohn presented a mini-masterclass on “Elemental” at the Disney Content Showcase in Singapore on Wednesday. During his presentation, Sohn showed a picture of him as a child with his parents and was visibly emotional as he thanked them.
“Maybe it’s because when I was a kid, I really didn’t appreciate or understand what it meant to be an immigrant, to come to the U.S., and all the hard work that they did to give my brother and me our lives. That was one big nugget that was just sitting with me,” Sohn told Variety. “On the other side, I married someone that wasn’t Korean, and there was a lot of culture clash with that in my world. And that brought to me to this idea of finding opposites. And the question of what if fire fell in love with water came. As an animator, what could be a fun world to play with… so the fire and water is one thing. But then tying that to culture clash, was part of that metaphor. And then in that world, all of a sudden this idea of sacrifice, and understanding what our parents had given started to make the soup of what this film is.”
Disney’s “Strange World” is currently underperforming at the box office. When asked what animators should be doing in the face of an unpredictable audience who have a vast array of content to choose from, Sohn said, “I’ve just always responded to really heartfelt, sincere movies and storytelling, with characters that I can really fall in love with, and hopefully empathize with, and finding characters that have that vulnerability so that I can jump in with them, is a goal of mine and the type of movies that I love. And as an animator, trying to find ways to make that universal.”
“I grew up with parents that didn’t speak English. And so, a lot of the movies that we saw, they didn’t understand, I always had to translate them. But a lot of the animated movies that were told visually so well, I never had to translate anything for them, they could just watch it and enjoy the movie or get emotional over the animation. And that, for me as an animator is a goal of trying to make something universal that all can connect to in that empathetic way,” Sohn said.
Disney’s animated films are increasingly culturally diverse and Sohn’s own work will continue to be informed by his own background.
“It has been the struggle of my life for sure understanding my place and what have I assimilated or my identity being a bifurcated identity. It’s always been there, I assume that it’ll be always a part of some amount of storytelling – having that kind of that diversity,” said Sohn. “Will it be a major thing? I don’t know. But it’s been a part of my life. And I love trying to reflect what the teams that we’ve worked with their lives and our lives into the work that we do.”
“Elemental” releases on June 16, 2023. It is produced by Denise Ream (“The Good Dinosaur,” “Cars 2”), and features the voices of Leah Lewis and Mamoudou Athie as Ember and Wade respectively.