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Pixar spends a gentle, semi-queer Italian summer with “Luca”

Luca (Pixar Animation Studios)

Pixar’s latest is sunny and vibrant but flounders a bit when it comes to its clarity of purpose.

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Disney/Pixar’s latest, Luca, is a deeply charming fish-monster-out-of-water story about two buddies, a Vespa, and the freedom to follow your path. It’s a low-stakes tale about embracing your individual identity and the differences of the collective, with more than a few cute moments to sell its engaging atmosphere. It also suffers from a lack of clarity, which frustratingly keeps Luca from staying fully buoyant.

Luca (Jacob Tremblay) is a young sea monster living a quiet yet boring life in an underwater Italy under his parent’s protective eye. That is, until he encounters the rebellious Alfonso (Jack Dylan Grazer): Like Luca, Alfonso is a sea monster, but he’s gone through “the change” and experienced life on land as a human. Far from monstrous like the adults always say, the human world allows for a wealth of independence and magical possibilities, all of which Alfonso is more than willing to show his young friend. The two develop a deep bond and a shared dream of leaving the sea world behind and riding a Vespa off into the Mediterranean sunset.

Once committed to their plan, the best buds leave the water for the last time and try to make their way in the human village of Portorosso (a cheeky nod to Miyazaki’s Porco Rosso, whose influences are peppered throughout the film). That’s when they meet Giulia (Emma Berman), a spunky preteen who’s a little “different,” just like the boys. She’s determined to win this year’s traditional town triathlon, which consists of biking, swimming, and (being Italy) eating pasta. 

Luca (Pixar Animation Studios)
Luca (Pixar Animation Studios)

Seeing an opportunity to win the money for a Vespa of their own, the boys soon move in with Giulia and her dad to start practicing for the big day. But soon unexpected emotions and revelations threaten to tear the trio apart.

As we’ve come to expect from Disney/Pixar, Luca‘s strengths lie in its visual storytelling. Director Enrico Casarosa helms a richly animated picture that elegantly pulls off one shape-shifting stunt after another (the kids, after all, turn back into sea creatures when wet, making for many the farcical vignette). Water and shape-shifting are notoriously hard to animate, so the fact that Casarosa and team soak Luca‘s landscapes so gracefully with both is truly magical. 

The idyllic Italian seaside town of Portorosso is richly textured, reflecting the folksy charm Casarosa is going for in every cobblestone and plate of pasta. But it also recalls the classic Italian films of Federico Fellini and others (La Strada is a big influence), clear inspirations for Luca‘s shimmering sophistication.

The sound ain’t bad, either; composer Dan Romer’s lush soundscape is the first to introduce us to Luca‘s Italian milieu with skillfully integrated, interweaving melodies coupled with well-researched use of folk instrumentals (the accordion gets quite the workout). Romer’s score keeps the film quaint, lively, and contained, even when the stakes reach their highest. It’s a perfect score for any sunny day.

…recalls the classic Italian films of Federico Fellini and others (La Strada is a big influence), clear inspirations for Luca‘s shimmering sophistication.

That sunniness is what makes Luca an easy film to swim through, but it also makes it difficult to catch the intent behind the themes being set down by Casarosa, along with writers Jesse Andrews and Mike Jones. In the beginning, the sea is a suffocating space for both Luca and Alfonso, despite their gills. They see the land-world as the plane of freedom. But when they get there, they’re trapped in a world that hunts sea monsters, with no discussion of the disconnect between their fantasies and their realities. 

“Two buds interrupted by a girl” is a classic homoerotic narrative setup and easily lends itself to queer readings, especially these days. Alfonso initiates Luca into the pleasures and mysteries of a new world; he has his own coded language and topsy-turvy worldview which immediately enchants Luca. The queerness of Alfonso’s open and intense jealousy of Giulia, as Luca develops a new fascination with her interests, only deepens once Luca and Alfonso’s true identities become a threat. If Giulia and the village knew about their shared bio-criminal secret, after all, they could be killed.

Having a personal identitarian secret that cannot be safely or legally revealed is a feeling queer and trans people know all too well, so there will be many queer viewers who will identify with this film. But only parts of it. Because Andrews and Jones don’t fully embrace queer allegory or any one interpretation, for that matter. The sea/land split also at times represents childhood vs. maturity and agriculture vs. industrialization, with no commitment to any one message. Luca tries to stand for too many things without having the sea legs to support them.

Luca (Pixar Animation Studios)
Luca (Pixar Animation Studios)

While focusing so much on bringing depth to its visual and audio storytelling, Casarosa, Andrews, and Jones sadly leave Luca’s meaning in the shallow end. Granted, Luca allures because it can mean different things to different people. But lures are illusions, fake baits to entice us with the promise of food or nourishment only so we can be hooked and dragged along.

What we need is a firm commitment to a code, some follow-through. When the two women whom we’ve recognized about town as a couple reveal themselves to be a pair of lavender-colored sea monsters (a “Lafinder couple,” if you will), it doubles down on a historic queer coding, which would suggest that the monster/human split was a kind of closet all along, like learning the key to a map. 

But as we retrace our steps, we come across too many narrative and thematic cul-de-sacs for a queer interpretation (or any interpretation) to tread water in any sort of meaningful way. Luca winks at the lavender couple, but that sly ingenuity doesn’t get the support it needs from the broader narrative.

Luca tries to stand for too many things without having the sea legs to support them.

And this isn’t necessarily the fault of any one person, like Casarosa, Andrews, or Jones. Sadly, Luca is typical of a current trend in family-focused animation that wants to have it both ways and appease liberal viewers without alienating more conservative ones. Production companies like Disney (especially Disney) know audiences want to see more diverse storylines. But if this and Soul are any indication, they are still clearly at a loss as to how to write them.

We don’t need Luca and Alfonso to be openly queer, or bi, or gay. Queer representation is not predicated on or defined by out-ness. There are plenty of queers on Tumblr aching to tell you which Disney character “is gay, actually” and they’ll come at you with all the emotional-textual evidence you could ever want. But we do expect a thoroughgoing commitment to meaning, especially if we’re going to talk about identities in metaphors of monstrosity. 

But the problems with its themes are, frustratingly, the problems with the film itself. Luca offers so much, with lots going on beneath the surface. But it leaves too many holes in the net to catch anything significant or revolutionary. By not committing to any clear meaning or multiple meanings, Luca is adrift in a sea of enchanting possibilities.

Luca washes ashore on Disney+ on June 18th.

Luca Trailer:

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