We all have a formative Pixar movie. Anyone born from the ‘90s onwards will be able to remember the one animated film they just couldn’t help revisiting over and over, whether it was Toy Story, Monsters Inc, Wall-E, or Cars – if you’ve got really odd taste.
The cast of Elemental is no different in this respect. The stars of one of the best Pixar movies in years – check out our Elemental review for our full thoughts – were just as obsessed with the studio’s best animated movies during their childhood as we all were, and they know how to pick their Pixar.
Elemental, directed by Pixar veteran Peter Sohn, follows fire element Ember (Leah Lewis) and water element Wade (Mamoudou Athie) as they form an unlikely romance against the backdrop of prejudice and racism in the multicultural Element City. It’s one of the year’s best rom-coms and a great showcase for Athie and Lewis, who have remarkable chemistry between their respective voice roles.
But which Pixar movies did they grow up loving? “Toy Story. It’s the first one and I was the perfect age,” Athie told The Digital Fix. “I was really in love with it as a kid. I was like ‘Buzz Lightyear is so cool’, and then as I got older, I was like ‘Woody is kind of the cool one’. It shifts.”
Lewis added: “For me, it would probably be Finding Nemo and The Incredibles. The Incredibles stood out a lot to me, though, because it really made me want to do something with my life. Not saving the world, but doing the right thing and family in general. But in more recent years, Inside Out. I wish I’d had that movie as a child too.”
See, we told you they had good taste. We can’t argue with any of those choices, which are some of the best movies in Pixar’s history.
But as for Elemental, the story came ready-made with emotional resonance for the two stars, with its central idea of offering thanks to immigrant parents. Athie came to the USA from Mauritania when he was six months old – he officially became an American citizen while making Elemental – and Lewis was adopted by American parents as a baby from an orphanage in Shanghai.
“[My parents] sacrificed everything to leave Mauritania and start afresh here,” said Athie. “I understood intellectually as a kid what that meant but, as I get older and build a life of my own, I’m like ‘wow, just to abandon everything and build a new life’. This movie, as Pete describes, is a thank you and a love letter to his family and all of our families. I think everyone can understand what it is to say thank you to everyone who has sacrificed.”
Lewis also saw the movie as a golden chance to thank her own family for the things they gave up to help her pursue a career as an actor.
She said: “From a very early age, my whole family banded together to help make this dream happen. They sacrificed, I don’t want to say their dreams, but a lot of other things they could’ve been doing instead of helping me do what I was doing. That tie of wanting to show that gratitude but also not really knowing how sometimes, I definitely resonate with that.”
But, even aside from all of that emotional heft, Elemental also had to work as one of the best comedy movies of the year, even though Athie and Lewis were never in the same room. In fact, Lewis revealed that she didn’t meet her on-screen love interest in person until Disney’s D23 event in 2022, by which point the movie was around 75% complete.
Fortunately, they both had director Sohn as their scene partner in the recording sessions and both actors were very clear in their opinion that he’s “incredible” to work with. After all, he’s an experienced voice actor himself and provided the hilarious and adorable voice of robot cat Sox in Lightyear.
Elemental was also an enormous technical challenge, with fire and water historically two of the toughest things to convincingly animate. “I even think they were unsure about what was going on,” said Lewis. “Hearing [producer Denise Ream] and Peter’s stories about the early renderings of our characters, and how some of them appeared scary, alien-like, or like a blob.”
She added: “It’s so cool to see them also have that courage in themselves. Even though Pixar is top-tier animation, they’re still trying new things. When you look at a bonfire or the way water moves, I never would’ve thought in a million years it would be that difficult to get it life-like but also still animated. It’s a fine line. We’re not going to see live-action; we’re going to see animation for a reason.”
Athie certainly agrees. “I think people need to understand what they did here. This movie is impossible. They’re walking, talking special effects in a world that is completely rendered. They create everything moment by moment and frame by frame. I don’t fully understand. Whenever I talk to the animators, it’s beyond my comprehension and also enthralling and incredible that they have the dedication and the genius combined to do this.”
Dedication is very much at the heart of Elemental, and so it’s a crying shame that it never stood a chance at the box office. It’s one of the most impressive new movies Pixar has released in years, and we’d love a chance to rejoin Athie and Lewis for another journey into the rich, nuanced world of Element City.
For more info on whether we’ll get that chance, check out our guide to the Elemental 2 release date. Or for more on the film itself, find out if there’s a Pixar short before Elemental and learn whether you need to stick around for an Elemental post-credits scene.
Elsewhere at Pixar, you can look ahead to the Toy Story 5 release date and the Inside Out 2 release date. Alternatively, check out this horrifying Finding Nemo fan theory and find out about all of the horror movie references in Toy Story 3.