Picture a story of two young men who meet in an Italian village one fateful summer. They share a strong bond, but circumstances seem fated to drive them apart. Bicycles get ridden. Sun-dappled scenery evokes pure romance. Peaches, or perhaps peach gelato, may or may not play a role. You’d find yourself forgiven for immediately thinking of a certain Oscar-winning film from a few years ago, but who would have imagined the same scenario applying to the new Pixar movie, Luca? In the battle of text and subtext, Luca finds that sweet spot between a cute family adventure and an unabashedly LGBTQIA+ budding romance.
Enrico Casarosa makes his feature directing debut, and along with co-writers Jesse Andrews and Mike Jones, gives us Luca Paguro (Jacob Tremblay), a 13-year-old sea monster who, in the 1950s, spends his days herding fish and coming home to his parents Daniela (Maya Rudolph) and Lorenzo (Jim Gaffigan). They constantly warn Luca to stay away from the dangerous world above their undersea environs. Naturally, or else goodbye movie, Luca meets Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer) who coaxes Luca to the surface, where their bodies take on human form. With a secret only spoiled if they get wet again, the boys seek out all the thrills and spills denied them in their natural habitat. In a delightful sequence, we find them building and crashing janky Vespa prototypes. They crash at their new friend Giulia’s (Emma Berman) house and learn of a triathlon competition consisting of bicycling, pasta eating, and the dreaded swimming leg. If they win, they can buy a real, if busted, Vespa, and Broman Holiday it up until the dog days of August. Add a town bully who looks and acts just like Dancing With The Stars judge Bruno Tonioli and scene stealing roles from Napoleon Dynamite legend, Sandy Martin as Luca’s droll Grandma, and Sasha Baron Cohen as his loopy Uncle Ugo, and you have an unpretentious delight for all ages.
Those who can sniff out the undercurrents (pardon the Dad joke pun), however, will see Luca as a thinly veiled coming-out/gay love story. With its lush score by Dan Romer and its rainbow-colored gallery of hues and tones, you may find this the perfect setting for a same sex connection. It’s the male version of The Little Mermaid with a Pride month release date.
Try watching Luca and Alberto stand arm in arm as they take in a beautiful sunset without wanting to shout, “Kiss! Kiss! Kiss!” at the screen. You don’t have to squint to recognize the parallels to gay-themed films in which the fear of being discovered or living authentically with someone you love play a major part. Even Giulia has that tomboy Peppermint Patty quality to complete this platonic trio’s oh so woozy, eye-contact filled rush of same sex loving vibes. The inclusion of a character with a disability in the form of Guilia’s father Massimo adds to the film’s way of coloring outside the lines.
Those expecting the grandeur of such Pixar triumphs as Toy Story or Finding Nemo may feel disappointed in this decidedly low-key effort, but it’s the small-scale and unfussy animation which actually made me love it more. The visuals may not feel as eye-popping as past fare, but this adorable, fast-paced, funny tale earns its gorgeous final shot, a bittersweet moment of longing and freedom.
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic
Luca is currently streaming on Disney+.