Photo credit: DISNEY/PIXAR

What Disney’s and Pixar’s Elemental taught me about multiculturalism and family

Beyond a story of romance, I was touched by the film’s exploration into diversity, and relationships with the family and yourself.

Fong Wai Kei

Enjoys writing in comic sans unironically.

Published: 26 July 2023, 3:11 PM

Ember Lumen, Elemental Director Peter Sohn and I have something in common – we are children of first-generation immigrants. 

While other viewers relish the animation style or have their heartstrings tugged by the interactions between Ember and Wade Ripple, I found myself leaving the theatre with an aching heart over the relationship that she shares with her parents. 

This makes sense knowing how much inspiration Peter drew from the highs and lows of his life too, as a first-generation citizen and starting his own family with a non-Korean against his late grandmother’s wishes. In an interview with NPR, Peter said: “…all the fun culture clash stuff from that and also the dark stuff from that became ingredients to the film.”

Elemental follows the journey of protagonist fire person Ember Lumen in saving her family’s business and in the process, coming to terms with what she truly wants for herself. 

And as a first-generation Singaporean, what captivated my interest was really the film’s conversations centering family, multiculturalism and immigration.

Family and the self

Ember’s internal struggle between wanting to pay homage to her parents’ sacrifices and following her own heart resonated with me. Like Ember, it’s difficult as children of first-generation immigrants to fathom the challenges our parents had to tide through. 

In 1998, my parents and my then one-year-old older brother left Hong Kong for Singapore when my father received a promising job offer. 

Despite their efforts to adapt and assimilate, they often found comfort in familiar grounds and gravitated towards shop owners and doctors who spoke Cantonese. And I was reminded of this when other fellow Fire people populated Firetown and flocked to the “Fireplace”, run by Ember’s father, Bernie Lumen.


Bernie built and runs the “Fireplace” with hopes to pass the store to Ember one day. PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTUBE/PIXAR


My family and I have had our fair share of frequenting restaurants and food chains run by people from Hong Kong. From Yuan Yang, a coffee and milk tea drink, to braised beef brisket noodles and Dim Sum delicacies, we enjoy comparing their likeness to the ones we eat in Hong Kong, making a mental ranking to which place satisfies our cravings best.

Moving here meant having to adapt to a new country and its cultures from scratch. It’s a tough feat I don’t take for granted as I appreciate my current life here. 

For the Lumen parents, they built a life for themselves in the city from the ground up (literally, they took a dilapidated building and repurposed it into their home and business). As such, Ember worked hard in hopes to take over the business from her father one day so that he can retire in peace.

However, her hot-tempered nature often prevents her from executing the job well and she goes through a cycle of frustration. Her sense of self-worth is then based on her meeting her parents’ needs, calling herself a “bad daughter” when she fails and “good” when she succeeds.

Eventually, after being prompted by Wade to express her feelings to her father, Ember hears the words that relieves her of her turmoil.

“The shop isn’t the dream,” Bernie says to her, “you’re the dream.”

This spurs Ember to dig deep within herself and find the path that resonates the most. (But you’ll have to watch the movie to see what she chooses.)

Sometimes, we can get caught up in our pursuit to repay them for their sacrifices that we neglect our own happiness. But, this only defeats their purpose for moving – often to give us a better life. 

I’ve definitely had moments where I struggled between making choices that would better live up to my parent’s expectations of me and charting my own path. And I know I’m not the only one.

Ember has also reminded me how important it is to check in with myself on what my needs and wants are, independent of what my parents want. 

Respecting other cultures and building a multicultural society

Another issue Elemental confronts is the thin line between appreciating and appropriating another culture. After all, American animator and director of Elemental Peter Sohn shared that Element City is inspired by “immigrant neighbourhoods” like Koreatown in Western countries. 

A tribute to his upbringing in a Korean family in The Bronx, New York City, the film also draws inspiration from his own life experiences, including the next scene that likened his wife’s first encounter with spicy Korean food.

When Wade struggles to consume a fire meatball in front of Ember and Bernie, he decides, innocently, that watering it down would be the ideal solution to make it more palatable to his taste buds. While Wade is proud of his new-found tweak to the delicacy, Bernie is infuriated that their traditional food has been altered this way.


Wade struggles to take the heat. PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTUBE/PIXAR


In a culturally-diverse country like Singapore, foods from other cultures are very much accessible. With such a diverse array of cuisines, sometimes, we may unknowingly say or do something disrespectful.

While Wade did this as his own way of wanting to appreciate another’s culture, when a member of that community becomes offended, namely Bernie, that’s a sign that we should re-evaluate our words and actions. 

Although not every food will sit right with our taste buds, respect for another culture and its people should never be compromised. It’s crucial to listen to how our actions may be affecting others.

In 2020, Peranakan restaurant Violet Oon was criticised for marketing its Javanese dishes as “Nyonya Nasi Ambeng Trays”. Food writer Azimin Saini was among one of the members in the affected community who called out their act of cultural appropriation. The restaurant subsequently issued an apology, taking accountability for their actions and renamed them to “Family trays” instead while explaining why their words were inappropriate so that others don’t make the same mistake as them.

Apart from food, another point of contention is the wearing of ethnic costumes. This is especially so during Racial Harmony Day celebrations in schools. 

In the past, I have gotten certain impressions from schoolmates who see Racial Harmony Day as a picture opportunity, a chance to eat free food or take a break from lessons. While the true purpose behind celebrating may have gotten lost in the process, I believe our fundamental desire to have a good time with friends isn’t something to be villainized, as long as we do it without ill-will towards another culture.


My Junior College’s 2019 Racial Harmony Day Celebration saw the first time I wore a Baju Kurung that I lent from my friend. PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTHOPIA/FONG WAI KEI


Furthermore, Elemental also touched on the struggles of living in a widely diverse community and the frustration of being discriminated against as a member of a minority group. 

Ember and her father were shunned away from the exotic Vivisteria flowers, similar to how Bernie and Cinder were chased away by landlords when they were trying to find a place to rent. In both cases, their fire was seen as a threat. 

Hence, Bernie concludes that Element City is “not built for fire people” and warns Ember that “elements don’t mix”.

Element City held some resemblance to Singapore for me – both are melting pots of cultures and hold the space for various communities to co-exist.


Both the fictional and real cities boast urban architecture and diverse communities. PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTUBE/PIXAR, YOUTHOPIA/SEIF UMAR


Recently, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong stressed on the importance of leveraging on our differences. In his Youth Month message this year, he said that on top of community initiatives and programmes, “we can stay united in our values and identity, yet preserve our diversity in practices, cultures and customs.”

He added: “Our diversity is our strength. Together, we can build a future that leaves no one behind.”

This showed me that as much as policies protect people of different communities and leaders pave the way for how we should treat other communities, it is still up to us, the people, to build a harmonious society. 

As someone who is part of the majority race in Singapore, I believe the onus should be on us to get educated and listen to our fellow Singaporeans on how we can do better. 

Overall, general audiences had mixed reactions that jumped between praise for the visuals and film score to disappointment towards the lack of extensive world-building and marketing.

However, this film dug deeper beyond the surface for me and I couldn’t help but relate to this film on a more personal level.

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