What’s new, folks? Six months have passed since Pixar’s Soul streamed on Disney+ on Christmas 2020, and hooboy, that half a year was simultaneously interminable and fleeting. Now we have Pixar’s 24th feature film, Luca, which released exclusively on Disney+ on June 18 (Toy Story 3 premiered on that very same date all the way back in 2010). Directed by Enrico Casarosa (the 2011 Oscar-nominated Pixar short La Luna) in his feature film directorial debut, produced by Andrea Warren (Cars 3), and written by Jesse Andrews (the sole screenwriter of Every Day) and Mike Jones (one of three writers of Soul), Luca follows the eponymous young boy, Luca Paguro (played by Jacob Tremblay), as he and his new friend Alberto Scorfano (Jack Dylan Grazer) romp through the 1950s-60s seaside town of Portorosso on the Italian Riviera. The catch: the two kids are actually sea monsters who are in their The Shape of Water forms when they’re wet and then assume human form when they’re dry.
While I generally enjoyed Luca, I want to make it clear that this is a mid-tier Pixar product. Usually we can rely on the renowned animation studio for smart and touching content that equally appeals to both children and adults on different levels. A recent exception is Soul, which draws in adults more easily and could lose kids along the way. Luca turns out to be another exception, but it’s the other way around this time, which isn’t necessarily a drawback. This is a movie that purposely targets younger viewers with straightforward storytelling and a surprisingly intimate dynamic between the boys, and I think it succeeds at that goal. For the older audiences, however, it leaves us wanting more depth and higher stakes in the narrative. Personally, I never even felt an emotional gut-punch—not that Luca doesn’t have its affecting moments, but none of them hit me hard the way that Inside Out, Coco, and other top-tier Pixar offerings have done in the past. I’m certain there could have been a more fleshed-out version of Luca that remained entertaining enough to play to the youngsters, especially after streaming The Mitchells vs. The Machines on Netflix (a strong recommend, by the way, that carries out the job of being a delightful time for viewers of all ages). Luca does a decent job at delivering its message of self-acceptance and embracing others who are perceived to be different from you, but the additional lesson of silencing your inner critic, which I haven’t seen in many animated movies, would have benefitted from a deeper exploration.
That being said, I enjoyed multiple aspects of this literal fish-out-of-water tale. To start off, it keeps me engaged with an expertly paced plot that evokes predecessors like Call Me by Your Name, Pixar’s Finding Nemoand Disney’s The Little Mermaid, along with Ponyo and Porco Rosso(the name of the town in which Lucais set, “Portorosso,” pays homage to the latter movie) from animation top dog Studio Ghibli. All of it is set to a jaunty score by Dan Romer (Far Cry 5, Ramy), which is an excellent fit for the soundtrack, particularly once it reaches a lush and sweeping crescendo in the denouement. Yes, some of the scenes stretch into far-fetched territory and others move the story along on plot contrivances, but I’m willing to give them a pass because of the buoyantly zany tone that the movie sets for itself. I’ll let the Vespa scooter plugs slide by, too. Seriously, though, I haven’t seen an animated movie dish out this much blatant product placement since Ralph Breaks the Internet.
This is very much the standard Pixar picture that’s built on the team effort of its studio, but I could also pick up on the personal passion coming through in the directorial voice of Casarosa, who grew up on the Italian Riviera himself. He’s actually been in the animation game for a while; aside from La Luna, he was a story artist on Ice Age, Ratatouille, Up, Cars 2, the 2016 Pixar short film Piper, and Coco, along with being an uncredited story artist on Robots and Cars. In addition, this movie was largely animated from home, which is a remarkable undertaking to consider.
Tremblay, who has been busy in Hollywood since his breakout role in the 2016 Brie Larson drama Room at the age of nine, leads the cast with his energetic voice. Grazer, another rising child actor whose credits include It and Shazam!, brings his own outgoing flair to Alberto. As for the supporting roster, it includes Emma Berman as Giulia Marcovaldo, a feisty human girl whom Luca and Alberto befriend; Maya Rudolph and Jim Gaffigan as Daniela and Lorenzo, Luca’s parents (coincidentally, Rudolph recently played another animated-movie mom in The Mitchells vs. The Machines); Saverio Raimondo as Ercole Visconti, a superbly hatable bully who belongs in Pixar’s Villains Gallery; Marco Barricelli as Massimo, Giulia’s fisherman father; and a side-splitter of a cameo from Sacha Baron Cohen as Luca’s Uncle Ugo (make sure you watch the end credits stinger!).
When viewers hear Italian accents in this movie, they’re typically coming from Italian voice actors, while the American talent stick to their American accents for the most part. However, there were lines here and there where actors like Tremblay and Grazer dipped into cringy accents that made me flashback to Massimo in The Wedding Planner. *shudder*
Daniele and Lorenzo fit in the stereotype of the well-meaning helicopter parents who just can’t understand their kid’s hopes and dreams. Like other parts of Luca, this could have been navigated more cleverly. After seeing the multifaceted daughter-father dynamic in The Mitchells vs. The Machines, I’m less tolerant of one-dimensional parents in animation.
As always when it comes to Pixar, the animation is breathtaking. The rounded edges and expressive movements of the character designs remind me of the stop-motion visuals in Wallace & Gromit, Chicken Run, Flushed Away, and other examples from Aardman Animations. The movie’s technique of combining 2-D and 3-D animation styles is also suggestive of those same movies. Even though the creature design doesn’t try to innovate beyond what we’ve already seen in Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Shape of Water, the look of the sea monsters remains captivating to watch. And the water, oh good heavens, the shimmering water—one of the most difficult things to animate well, but of course Pixar is up for the task.
I’m curious if it’s a coincidence that the film released in Pride Month and carries gay undertones, what with its story of Luca and Alberto hiding their sea monster identities while they’re on land. Casarosa did say the central relationship is platonic, but it’s nonetheless an interpretation worth considering. I’ll offer more of my thoughts on this in the spoilery section below. While we’re on the subject, how long will it take Pixar and Disney to give audiences their first explicitly LGBTQ+ protagonists? Onward did feature Pixar’s first openly queer character, a police officer voiced by Lena Waithe, but we need representation via the leads rather than the minor players. Sony Animation is far ahead of the game with The Mitchells vs. The Machines. I know Pixar and Disney want to promote their products in China, Russia, and other countries that ban queer theatrical content, but they’ll have to step up to the plate sooner or later.
Now, I do find it concerning that Disney has dropped the last two Pixar entries exclusively on their streaming service instead of releasing them on Disney+ and in theaters. Pixar needs the box office earnings, after all. Their last theatrical release was Onward, which suffered from coming out during the start of COVID-19. The next theatrical Pixar flick is scheduled for 2022: Turning Red, which is about a teenager who turns into a red panda when she feels excitement. To be honest, this puberty allegory would sound like a complete eye-roller if it weren’t helmed by Pixar, and even then, it seems a bit iffy.
And that’s Luca. It heads down the coming-of-age route in a heartwarming and kid-friendly fashion, although I’ll always be left wondering what we could have gotten if it had aspired to reach the level of Pixar’s finest work.
Windup score: 70/100
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
The storyline of Luca itself is fairly simple, so there won’t be too much to analyze here. I just want to focus on how the gay subtext surfaces in the movie (disclaimer: I’m approaching this from a cishet perspective, so I apologize if I end up being misinformed here). The first major beat is the one in which Luca, Alberto, and Giulia are on the beach, and she talks about returning to school at the end of summer (her parents have split up, so she stays with Massimo in Portorosso every summer and stays with her mom for the school year). This leads to Luca and Alberto quarreling over the former considering going to school. Sick of having to conceal their true selves, Alberto heads into the water and reveals himself to be a sea monster, expecting Luca to do the same. Luca, however, pretends to be terrified of his friend, and Ercole and his goons, who just arrived, start hurling harpoons at Alberto. He doesn’t even pay attention to his attackers as he escapes, so visibly heartbroken is he by Luca’s betrayal. This is redolent of that familiar scenario in which two people of the same gender are caught hooking up and one of them resorts to proclaiming their outward straightness while accusing the other of coming on to them. Thankfully, I don’t think this happens nearly as much now as it did twenty, ten, or even five years ago, though we still have a ways to go in the fight for LGBTQIA equality.
Then there’s the end of the Portorosso Cup Race (an odd competition that kicks off with swimming, proceeds to speed-eating pasta, and concludes with a bike race), which sees Luca and Alberto making up and coming out as sea monsters. Except for Ercole, of course, everyone is supportive, but only after Massimo sticks up for them. I’ve heard criticism that this is an implausible character choice for Giulia’s dad, and my counterargument is that there were a few beats sprinkled throughout the movie to establish his growing fondness for the boys. A particularly salient moment is the one in which Massimo insists on going out to search for Alberto after the beach scene. It unfolds with a Pixar-grade subtlety that I wish had been more present throughout the film.
The movie wraps up with Luca’s grandma observing that it’s important for him to find people who will accept him for himself (advice that could apply to any marginalized group, although it feels especially relevant to the queer community), then Luca and Alberto’s farewell as the former sets off on a train for school. Again, I know Casarosa denied any purposeful hinting at a gay allegory, but the way this scene plays out—Alberto giving his “Go find out for me” line after he uses an Italian phrase and Luca asks what it means, the two of them crying and holding hands for as long as possible as a rainstorm turns Luca into his sea monster form—does give off some romantic vibes. I don’t find them to be as strong as Rayaari, but they’re present. Furthermore, this reminds of the farewell between the Protagonist and Neil in Tenet, with the “Go find out for me” quote being evocative of Neil remarking, “I’ll see you at the beginning, friend.”
Like I said, Luca lands in the middle of Pixar’s filmography for me, the boys’ companionship being more memorable than the formulaic plot.