Although I did mention this in my review of Soul (which I am quite proud of, come to think of it), I think I’d like to reiterate here that since their 1995 debut with Toy Story, Pixar’s filmmaking portfolio has been more or less divided into two distinct modes of operation: movies for kids that adults can enjoy, and movies for adults that kids can enjoy. And even though their numerical record shows a historical preference for the former, ever since Wall-E and Up they’ve been putting increasing emphasis on the latter, where their newest creation, Luca, also happens to fit.
Similarly to the vast majority of Pixar productions, Luca leverages a deceptively simple narrative about coming of age and male camaraderie around a compelling gimmick whereby the main characters in the story are sea monsters (or mer-people?) who dwell at the bottom of the ocean in a closed-off community, far away from humans whom they view as dangerous predators slowly encroaching onto their seemingly idyllic habitat. This is also where we meet Luca (voiced by Jacob Tremblay), a young and energetic boy who clearly suffocates under the thumb of his over-protective parents. One day, he meets Alberto (voiced by Jack Dylan Grazer) who convinces him to leave the safety of the ocean and explore the world. This is also where a Pixar-esque mechanic comes into play as Luca discovers that when on land he changes into a little boy and his true nature is only exposed when he touches water. The boys go on to infiltrate the coastal town of Portorosso and befriend a bubbly Giulia (Emma Berman) while Luca’s parents decide to go on a mission to find their missing son.
Now, ever since the film’s release on Disney Plus, the universe of Film Twitter has been positively abuzz with reactions, hot takes and observations of varying magnitude, some of which could convince you that Luca is some kind of a political statement made on behalf of Pixar and Disney, which I will get to in a second. Before I do so, however, I think it is best to begin any discussion about this film by acknowledging its artistry, the vivid colour palette and general tone, which – again, like many other Pixar productions – is overwhelmingly positive and wholesome. It is a beautiful film to look at and a world spending time in which is a pleasurable experience in its own right; which will undeniably endear younger audiences. Well, that and the central plot concerning preparations for a goofy race… But underneath the sheen of a perfect little animated gem lies a whole ocean of cultural references and thematic depth that the adult in the room will most definitely gravitate towards.
Astute viewers will immediately recognize characteristic winks and nods to other works of cinema, which draw a confident line connecting the film with its creator, Enrico Casarosa, who clearly wanted to share with the world at large his own cultural background and inspirations driving his art. Luca is peppered throughout with references to great Italian filmmakers like Fellini, De Sica, Rossellini and Visconti. Moreover, you wouldn’t be wrong to connect this movie to the works of Hayao Miyazaki. The fact the coastal town is called Portorosso is surely no coincidence, just as it is clear as day that the narrative core of the film pays due homage to Ponyo. However, this isn’t where comparisons to other works of cinema end because – as many have noted already – it isn’t difficult to notice axes of symmetry between Luca and Call Me By Your Name and infer a queer reading of the central relationship between Luca and Alberto; but this is also where I will carefully posit that a little knowledge of cinema can be a bit misleading sometimes.
Admittedly, the confluence of circumstances surrounding this movie seems perfect to sustain the idea that Luca is Pixar’s (and Disney’s) long overdue coming-out party. After all, it was released globally during Pride Month at no additional cost to Disney Plus subscribers. The ‘little mermaid’ archetype also lends itself to such a reading to an extent as well. And then there are the Call Me By Your Name cues lying there in plain sight, from the visual connotations between the characters all the way down to the film’s final scene whose emotional prowess I dare not spoil completely. Agreed. Circumstances are perfect. Too perfect.
Provocative as it may seem to admit, I don’t think Luca sustains such a reading, nor does it harbour a fully functional metaphor that would somehow substantiate it either. In fact, if you scratch at the seemingly enticing central gimmick of sea monsters infiltrating a world of people who hunt sea monsters for sport and eventually gaining their acceptance, you will quickly find it doesn’t support that interpretation. If it does, are we to assume that the entire community of mer-people is an avatar for the gay community, including parents, uncles and everyone else? And how am I to square the fact Luca’s parents are essentially extremely conservative in their own right as well? Pardon the pun, but this doesn’t hold much water. In addition, the idea of looking for a romantic angle in the relationship between Luca and Alberto may also be counter-productive as the film as a whole is not so much unromantic, but quite clearly platonic. Believe it or not, it is possible for boys to develop close fraternal bonds, which I think is on display here. These boys are not in love, but they do love one another in a way best friends do. Therefore, it is my sincere belief that all these nuances, seemingly perfectly fitting together, are incredibly surface-level. These tokens of inclusivity are just that – tokens. They are meant to evoke the spirit of togetherness and acceptance – yes – but it is my opinion they are there to support a slightly different perspective.
While I would never tell anyone they should love this movie ‘the right way’ – after all, if Luca speaks to you as a gay love story, who am I to stop you? – I think it is most at home as a metaphor for the immigrant experience, which also happens to be a reading that speaks to me personally. If we filter the movie through the life experiences of its creator, we will immediately see that it works as an incredibly personal story about leaving the clutches of a protective and conservative familial community to explore the world at large. Luca is leaving his home country and goes on an adventure in a completely alien world where he will be forever seen as different due to his roots. What follows is the idea of assimilating into a different culture, remembering where he came from and finding people who would accept him ‘as he is’.
In addition, he is also an avatar for every boy and girl growing up in immigrant communities abroad, often culturally sequestered from their surroundings. It is not uncommon to see the exact same push-pull dynamic between young people wanting to leave the conservative safety of their family homes, where the culture of their parents is carefully preserved, and become more like their friends in school. This naturally awakens parental anxiety. Their kids are bilingual by nature, they feel more at home with the ‘host culture’ than with the culture of their parents who fear that in the absence of protective measures, their traditions and customs would be disregarded and forgotten.
But this is where the true power of the film truly resides as it reminds us – immigrant parents and kids alike – that if we play our cards right, none of those fears would ever come true. Kids need to explore. They must leave the nest. And it doesn’t mean they’ll forget how to tweet in their parents’ tongue. They will still come back for Christmas. They will still reminisce about traditional dishes mum used to make. They will carry their culture in their hearts. They won’t assimilate, but rather hybridize to become a sum of where they came from and where they went to live. And just like Luca, they will never forget who they left behind – the people who gave them the courage to follow their dreams. That’s what Luca is to me – a love letter written by an Italian American who misses his dear parents and shows them he never forgot that day he said goodbye, which – and I say that as someone who has experienced this as well – is both one of the saddest and the most joyful day in the life of any expat.
Luca is not slight or unremarkable. It is tender, wholesome and deeply personal in the way it wraps a familiar narrative idea around a supple core made of memories of a country left behind, which also happens to be incredibly inclusive; so much that it can become an umbrella for everyone who feels marginalized on any level because those ideas and thoughts are also overwhelmingly general. Many people will find that Luca speaks to them, be it as a coming-of-age tale, an immigrant song or even a queer love story, despite the many logical flaws I brought up. It is a movie that touches the soul and caresses the heart, which makes all these references of Miyazaki films look perfectly positioned to turn Pixar into the torchbearer for the legacy left by the great Studio Ghibli. And that, my dear friends, is what a paradigm-shifting achievement looks like.