Pixar’s newest film Luca from director Enrico Casarosa finds its setting in the beautiful landscapes of Italy. Luca Paguaro (Jacob Tremblay) is a young sea monster and shepherd boy who tends a flock of fish for his parents. His mother Daniela (Maya Rudolph) forbids him from going to the surface, but one day, Luca meets another sea monster boy named Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer) who lives above the surface in an abandoned tower and collects artifacts of the human world. Although sea monsters have a fairytale-like look below the surface, when they dry off on land, they turn “human-like,” allowing them access to the human world undetected, but at high risk for discovery through water exposure. Alberto longs to get his very own Vespa, so the boys decide to try to build one themselves from spare parts. This decision takes Luca down a path of identity-conflict, where he will meet with a new world of human friends while risking losing his old world of sea family. Luca and Alberto may be different from the others on land, but they want to experience the full range of life and freedom possible to them without judgment for who they are.
Online, many viewers expressed that they saw a queer subtext at the core of Luca and Alberto’s story and started a discussion during a particularly intense social media moment for queer people. The day after Luca released on Disney+, Variety published an interview where Anthony Mackie, best known as Sam Wilson in the Marvel cinematic universe, argued that people who romantically “ship” his Marvel character with Bucky Barnes (played by Sebastian Stan) do so to “make themselves relevant and rational” while exploiting gay identity in the process. These words were difficult for many queer people to read since shipping same-gender relationships can be a way to see themselves in media. Mackie, however, made another statement that further involves conversations around Luca: he claimed that it’s important to show men in sensitive, loving friendships, and he’s right about that. Arguably, however, both Marvel and Pixar are full of close friendships between men, from Tony Stark and Rhodey to Woody and Buzz, but there are no leading canon gay relationships in these companies’ histories. No one is seeking to erase all men’s platonic friendships in media, but a lot of us are trying to look for possible queer interpretations in what we have now even as we push for more direct representation in the future.
Luca, as a film, does leave room for queer interpretations. Luca and Alberto’s friendship is very loving and emphasises the importance of loyalty and mutual understanding. The film includes several key tropes and iconography traditionally connected to romantic relationships. Although it can be groundbreaking to show friends taking part in traditionally-romantic levels of closeness or care, it’s also valid to want to read Luca and Alberto’s relationship as romantic. If one chooses to view them as friends, there’s room for that interpretation. If, however, one wishes to read as queer a film released during Pride month about two boys seeking personal and communal acceptance, there’s room for that, too. Good art is very often rich and expansive—it can be layered, complex, and full of opportunities for implicit readings. If kid’s films have traditionally been viewed as ones catering to straight young people, why not begin to look for spaces for queer kids to see themselves as well? This reading of the film does not shut the door to straight children who might see their own friendships in Luca and Alberto, but it certainly makes sure the diverse kinds of crushes children have are present on-screen. Make no mistake—we need direct queer representation in children’s films, so I’m not suggesting Luca’s kind of ambiguity is ideal continually, but it’s what we have now, and there’s nothing wrong in claiming it while pushing for better, stronger representation.
Aside from its cultural possibilities, Luca also intervenes in its genre as it seems to borrow generously from other Disney movies including The Little Mermaid, The Lion King, Tangled, and perhaps even Beauty and the Beast, but in ways that never feel derivative, only transformative. Whereas The Little Mermaid often faces criticism due to Ariel “giving up” her voice for a man (which is arguably a very limited reading—she wants to explore life on land even before Eric), Luca bypasses much of Ariel’s complicated situation. Although Luca likes to collect artifacts from the surface and also wants to know about life on land, it isn’t all-or-nothing for him. Since emerging to the surface allows him to pass as human, and Alberto is a fellow sea creature and his close companion, Luca can have land-legs without permanently giving up his sea ones. No need to sell one’s soul, either. The film disposes of the fairytale conflict with Ursula (an evil sea monster herself) to instead frame the narrative tension around acceptance from both land and sea communities. Although Luca still possesses Ariel’s curiosity and bookish interests, the film shows him being his full, complex self, both physically and emotionally.
I highly recommend Luca for anyone who enjoys painterly animated movies (including Studio Ghibli) or any kind of film that deals with themes of longing, acceptance, and the genuine power of love when it comes to coping through difficult life stages and events. Besides the wonderful characterisations and simple-yet-heartfelt story, the film is richly animated with gorgeous small-town Italian landscapes and underwater seascapes. This film is a lovely summer piece to watch alone, with friends, or with family as a reminder that both the small and big joys of life are worth celebrating.
Luca is available to stream exclusively on Disney+ now
by Bishop V. Navarro
Bishop V. Navarro (they/she) is a poet, writer, and media studies scholar from Tampa, Florida. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of South Florida and currently pursues a PhD in Communication at USF. Her scholarly work examines boundary vulnerability in horror and science fiction media. You can find her on Twitter, Letterboxd, Instagram, and Tumblr @vnavarrowriter
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