Leah Lewis voices Ember, the fiery daughter of a hard-working immigrant, in 'Elemental' / © GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA/AFP
Pixar is seeking to rediscover its box office fortunes with timely immigrant fable "Elemental," the animation studio's first totally original new film to hit theaters since the start of the pandemic.
The movie, out next Friday in the United States, is set in the fantastical Element City -- where residents made out of fire, water, earth and air must learn to live in close proximity, despite their highly combustible differences.
It follows a dangerous romance between Ember, the fiery daughter of a hard-working immigrant, and Wade, the go-with-the-flow son of a wealthy water family.
Their relationship tests the divided city's mantra that "elements don't mix," a not-so-subtle metaphor for racism and prejudice in real-life society.
"Oh, my goodness, it's so forbidden! The fact that their very lives are at stake if Wade and Ember get close together -- it's like Romeo and Juliet," said Leah Lewis, who plays Ember.
"This film talks a lot about family loyalty, cultural identity, falling in love for the first time," she told AFP at the film's US premiere in Los Angeles this week.
Like many involved with the film, Lewis has her own immigrant story. She was adopted as a baby from a Shanghai orphanage by Floridian parents.
Pixar, under chief creative officer Pete Docter, is releasing 'Elemental,' the studio's first totally original new film in theaters since the start of the pandemic / © AFP
Mamoudou Athie, who voices Wade, was born in Mauritania and obtained US citizenship just over a year ago, while Ronnie del Carmen -- who voices Ember's dad Bernie -- emigrated from the Philippines.
Several stars noted the importance of the film's themes, at a moment when immigration dominates political debate.
Just this week, Florida's governor, Ron DeSantis, flew planeloads of immigrants across the country to California, in a bid to tout his tough stance on the issue ahead of next year's presidential election.
"It is very timely in our world today... If everybody can watch this movie, please, we need it," del Carmen told AFP.
The message is "a very prescient one for the times we're in," said co-star Wendi McLendon-Covey.
- Pixar pressure -
The film also comes at a critical time for Pixar, a subsidiary of entertainment behemoth Disney since 2006.
By its own high standards, the all-conquering studio behind classics like "Toy Story," "Finding Nemo" and "Up" has had a rough few years.
Mamoudou Athie, who voices Wade in 'Elemental,' was born in Mauritania / © GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA/AFP
Its last original, non-franchise movie to hit big screens, 2020's "Onward," launched and swiftly vanished as Covid shuttered theaters. Its next few titles were sent straight to the Disney+ streaming platform.
Pixar returned to cinemas last summer with "Lightyear," but the "Toy Story" spin-off flopped, and its director was among 75 Pixar employees laid off last week amid wider Disney job cuts.
Meanwhile, rival animation studios are flourishing in the post-pandemic era.
Sony's "Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse" is currently atop the box office charts, while Universal's Super Mario video game adaptation is this year's biggest film to date, grossing $1.3 billion.
Even last year's best animation Oscar, traditionally dominated by Pixar, went to Netflix and Guillermo del Toro's dark version of Pinocchio.
So it is no surprise that the Disney-owned studio is throwing everything at "Elemental."
"I think it's important... if you have any reason at all, to step out of your house, to go to a theater, and be entertained, it would be this Pixar movie," said del Carmen, who previously co-directed "Inside Out."
- 'Sacrifices' -
The film even received a glitzy world premiere in Cannes, where it closed last month's festival.
Based on early reviews from the festival, the movie scored just 68 percent on Rotten Tomatoes -- the joint-lowest for any Pixar movie except "Cars 2."
For director Peter Sohn, 'Elemental' is a deeply personal film about generations of immigrants / © GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA/AFP
But Pixar executives will be hoping audiences warm to the film, which has drawn praise for its innovative rendering of water and fire characters.
And for its director Peter Sohn, "Elemental" is also a deeper, personal story about the sacrifices made by immigrants.
The son of a Korean couple who moved to New York before he was born, Sohn previously directed Pixar's 2015 animation "The Good Dinosaur."
When he returned to his native Bronx for a talk on that film, he welled up seeing his proud parents in the audience, and the seed for his next movie was planted.
"This whole film started off with this moment where, as an adult, I got to thank my parents for the sacrifices that they made," he told AFP.
"They're immigrants from another country and they came here with nothing. As an adult, I have grown to appreciate them, until anytime I think about it, I'm crying."
"This whole movie has been about that appreciation."