Literal fish-out-of-water Luca (Jacob Tremblay) has a transformative summer with new friend Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer) as he yearns to stretch his fins and explore greener, less aquatic, pastures
Starring Jacob Tremblay, Jack Dylan Grazer, Emma Berman, Saverio Raimondo, Maya Rudolph, Marco Barricelli, and Jim Gaffigan
The second Pixar animation to be released without much fanfare on Disney+ (without a premier access fee, to boot, unlike Cruella, Raya and the Last Dragon or Mulan), Luca is a heartwarming, funny and endearingly familiar-feeling story.
That’s not, of course, to say that it isn’t fiendishly enjoyable. The familiarity and the simplicity of the central conceit is actually what generates much appeal, and adds to the nostalgic, timeless sensation that pervades Enrico Casarosa’s film. While Luca doesn’t go down deep or allegorical routes in the same vein as recent releases Soul or Inside Out, nor does it cause emotional devastation in audiences like Up, Coco or Toy Story 3, it is the film equivalent of slipping into a cool bath on a hot summer’s day and possesses massively relatable, universal themes that are explored without being too heavy handed.
Luca tells the story of, perhaps unsurprisingly, Luca Paguro, a boy who longs for more from his life than working on his family’s farm. His mother (Maya Rudolph, seemingly everywhere), however, forbids him to leave their village, saying that it is simply too dangerous. Sounds familiar, right? A spirited child, finding their own sense of identity and yearning for adventure, downtrodden and not listened to by their elders. It’s standard fairytale, coming-of-age stuff – with one neat twist: Luca is a sea monster, and his mother’s fear is quite well founded: the nearby town of Portorosso does indeed provide a very real danger to Luca, as they would almost certainly hunt and kill his kind.
Fortunately, when sea monsters alight on land, they assume human form, and Luca soon finds himself introduced to the human world by fellow sea-monster, and soon-to-be best friend Alberto – a boy with more confidence than actual knowledge. Together, the pair dream of having a real Vespa so that they can explore the world. As it happens, the method for gaining this Vespa falls neatly into their laps in Portorosso, in the form of The Portorosso Cup Race. With the help of local girl Giulia (Emma Berman), the group band together to win the triathlon and beat repeat champion Ercole Visconti (Saverio Raimondo), a bully with a personality as oily as his hair.
While it may seem strange to label a story about sea monsters as familiar, relatable and universal, there are touches of things we have seen before – The Little Mermaid, of course, as a prime example. The sea monsters, it doesn’t take a Durham graduate (guilty) to realise, are a metaphor for all sorts of difference, and the struggle that Luca goes through during this movie is all about embracing his “otherness”, and showing his true self to the world, regardless of their reaction.
Even though this isn’t a uniquely queer journey, it’s nigh-on impossible not to see shades of the queer experience through Luca’s transformative (pun intended) relationship with Alberto. There’s the whole concept of Alberto introducing Luca to an entirely different way of living, to their initial closeness and almost obsession, even to Luca taking on certain of Alberto’s mannerisms and hair style. The aesthetic even recalls Call Me By Your Name, and the audience sees Alberto’s jealousy over Luca’s growing closeness to Guilia, which suggests that the connection between the two of them is more important than just close friendship. What’s more, a section later in the film could metaphorically be read as Luca “outing” Alberto. These types of metaphors, even as recently as “Let It Go” becoming a gay anthem, seem almost intentionally geared at the queer community, and even though the creators involved stop short of actually legitimising this narrative (depressingly, no doubt, over concerns for international sales, or bigoted families – business can only be allies when it produces a profit, after all), it seems almost impossible to conceive that this wouldn’t have been discussed while creating the movie.
Inspired by his childhood, Casarosa really lends a sense of misty-eyed, rose-tinted nostalgia to the small town of Portorosso. The sea a beautiful aquamarine, and the town itself wrapped in comforting orange and red recalls the carefree holidays of many of the audiences’ youth. Whether or not audience members have specifically been to the Italian Rivera is secondary to the near-universal sensation of the liberation, independence and freedom that comes from making friends on holiday and exploring by yourself. The simplicity of the children’s pursuit is a large part of this nostalgic feel, reminding the audience of the extreme dreams they held in their youth before cynicism, taxes and systemic injustice set in.
As always, with a Pixar film, the world-building is so imaginative it’s truly joyful to behold. While perhaps not as out-there as Onward, or indeed the dual-realities of Coco or Soul, Luca still brings a lot of joy both to Portorosso, and also to the lives of the sea monsters living below the surface. The culture that is established in the sea, even fleetingly, of scurrying away from human’s boats, and of Luca shepherding a shoal of fish who make suspiciously sheep-sounding bleats, to then the way that the monsters’ scales retract as they assume human shape. Particular mirth is drawn from the fact that the sea monsters transform whenever they get wet, which isn’t exactly an original idea (H20: Just Add Water was iconic for a great deal many youths in the early 2000s, this writer being one of them), results in a particularly amusing sequence in which Luca’s parents hurl around the children of Portorosso as boisterously as a rugby team in a finals match.
While perhaps not groundbreaking for Pixar, Luca feels unique in its animation style, transporting the audience on a hedonistic, carefree summer holiday. The themes of identity, staying true to oneself and pursuing your own path are massively relatable and the result is truly heartwarming.
Luca is streaming now on Disney+