The films he has directed -titles such as ‘Up’ (2009), ‘Inside Out’ (2015) and ‘Soul’ (2020)– are among the best not only from the Pixar studios but, in general, from the entire history of animated cinema. As the company’s creative director since 2018, he is one of the brains behind the new feature film in his catalogue, ‘Elemental’, whose premise endows the four fundamental components of physical reality with emotions. Situated in a metropolis where they coexist the beings of air, those of wind, those of fire and those of earthis both a romantic comedy and a reflection on the experience of migrants.
‘Elementary’ is probably the most political of all the films produced by Pixar to date. Is it by chance that you see the light right now?
I suppose not. Art always works as a reflection of the society in which it is created. Museums exist to let us know what classical Greece or Renaissance Italy was like, right? ‘Elementary’ isn’t exactly an autobiographical film, but it’s a very personal one for its director, Peter Sohn, whose parents immigrated to the United States from Korea. When he presented the idea to us, we felt it was a story that he needed to tell.
Is it more difficult to talk about issues like immigration and racism through animated films?
Making movies like this requires maintaining a delicate balance. When people go to the cinema to see them, it is mainly to get away and have a good time, and not necessarily to be told about social problems. At the same time, however, we viewers also need cinema to somehow reflect our own lives, to tell us something we can connect with. That has been our main challenge with ‘Elemental’, integrating those issues organically into what is primarily a love story, and not letting them weigh it down too much.
As the rise of political leaders like Ron DeSantis in his country demonstrates, there is a rise in anti-immigration and even xenophobic attitudes in society. How do you think that might affect the film?
I can only say that regardless of our physical features or where we were born, ultimately all human beings come from the same part of Africa, and we all experience the same difficulties and hardships in our lives. There’s no point in trying to question that. One of the things we’ve learned at Pixar over the years is that the more specific and unique the characters we create, the more universal their appeal and connection to audiences becomes. That is why we have spent years giving space to artists of diverse origins to express themselves and, as a whole, the work they do reflects that cultural diversity. Peter (Sohn), as I say, is of Korean origin; the director of ‘Red’ (2022), Domee Shi, was born in China; that of ‘Luca’ (2021), Enrico Casarosa, is Italian.
From your position at Pixar, how do you think the pandemic affected the company in the long term?
Changes in viewer behavior have affected the industry as a whole. It is clear that, when cinemas reopened after the hardest moments of the pandemic, the films that turned out to be more capable of attracting the public were those of Marvel and action cinema in general; the young public is the one that was least afraid when it came to getting back into theaters. Also because of the rise of ‘streaming’, I think that parents are still reluctant when it comes to going to the movies as a family. I don’t know how long they will continue to be.
Speaking of streaming, what did you think of Disney’s decision to release some of Pixar’s latest movies directly on the Disney+ platform?
The first thing I must say about it is that Disney+ was a blessing for us because, due to the pandemic, if it weren’t for streaming, those movies would have remained unreleased indefinitely, gathering dust. There was no alternative to Disney+. On the other hand, I would be lying if I said that the situation made me happy. We’ve always worked with movie theaters in mind because, on TV or iPhone screens, the visual nuances and textures of our movies are lost.
Do you pay attention to the films produced by other animated film companies? What do you think of the success of recent titles like ‘Spider-Man: Crossing the Multiverse’?
Of course, I am interested in them as a Pixar executive and as an animation lover. For that particular movie, the fact that it is a sequel has given it an expensive advantage at the box office. As we all know, people tend to be more inclined to consume fiction about characters they already know and love. ‘Elemental’ does not fall into that category and, perhaps, that is the biggest challenge he faces. In any case, I want to believe that viewers are still interested in the original stories and new characters. At Pixar we also produce sequels but, at the same time, we will continue to surprise audiences.