One of the most noticeable paradoxes within many Pixar films is the balance between cutting-edge computer animation with stories that tend to be slavishly nostalgic for the childhoods of the people making them. The Toy Story movies often lean into the elegant simplicity of the past, usually through the western pastiche invoked through Woody, but also through the identifiable, unpredictable imagination of a kid. The Incredibles isn’t just a superhero film, it’s a memorable mash-up of 60s decor and the early James Bond movies. In much of the same way, Pixar’s new film, Luca, blends the timeless quality of Italian cinema—from setting to soundtrack—with a contemporary allegory about the coming out experience, and suffice to say, this is Pixar at its best.
Luca takes place off the sun-drenched Italian coast of Portorosso, a pastel-perfect, fictional town ripped straight out of a Fellini film, though I assume many will be eating gelato from a place like this in Disneyland before long. Lurking in the waters below is a community of sea monsters, who of course consider the humans above the surface to be, well, “land monsters.” One of these sea-dwellers is a curious, but timid boy named Luca (Jacob Tremblay) who eventually finds himself captivated by a seemingly fearless neighborhood kid named Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer). Despite everyone’s justified fear of humans, Alberto routinely ventures above water, and soon, he brings Luca along with him, striking up a heartwarming friendship. And even though they’re covered head to toe in scales and gills, they’re able to appear fully human as soon as they’re dry.
This cleverly-realized story mechanic gives Luca a real sense of urgency and stakes in a way that purely serves its underlying story about young people being afraid of revealing their true selves in a place that won’t accept them. Portorosso is filled with cultural clues that tell the boys these people definitely hate sea monsters, but nevertheless, they’re determined to find a sense of freedom and self-expression in this wonderfully small town, particularly when they befriend the charming Giulia (Emma Berman), who’s only sticking around for the summer.
Luca isn’t a movie that takes its characters to places we’ve never been before, but rather places we’ve forgotten about. It’s about the summer friendships that at the time felt like never-ending adventures. It’s clear that director Enrico Casarosa—with Jesse Andrews and Mike Jones as screenwriters—wants to scale down the typical big-budget blockbuster event movie more reminiscent of recent Pixar and bring about something more effortless and maybe sweeter. It often feels like a spiritual successor to Ratatouille for this reason, though with arguably even richer characters and a surprisingly effective sense of humor. No matter how you cut it, Luca is, quite simply, pure magic. It probably shouldn’t work as well as it does in delivering such a tight, witty script that feels completely in sync with the art and sound design.
Luca isn’t necessarily lacking a villain, as it certainly has a “Sid” sort of antagonist. But like in Toy Story, the real villain is our inability to control the emotions of others—ironic for Pixar, I know—as Luca channels a Little Mermaid sensibility and desperately wants to see the world and be part of it, no matter how unrealistic that might seem to his parents, friends, and whoever else. And thanks to Pixar’s typical attention to detail, both in writing and visuals, Luca’s coming-of-age story rings of universal authenticity without betraying the specificity of what this character may mean for many LGBTQA+ kids who see themselves in him.
It’s easy to see the obvious similarities between Luca and some other recent films like The Shape of Water and Call Me By Your Name, with the latter naturally being the more adult, explicit version of this story. But it would be unfair to leave out how Casarosa also utilizes the fantastical concepts of his short film, La Luna, to make Luca feel like a co-production between Pixar and Studio Ghibli, specially when it comes to its experimental, magical concepts and heightened, stylistic world where just about every possible color is used to its fullest extent onscreen.
The film doesn’t rest on the tropes of realistic animation, but it also doesn’t delve too far into the slapstick, zippy energy of its contemporaries, instead developing its own organic, consistent rules for how things move and what they “should” look like when in motion, allowing you to feel all the more transported. So even a scene where two kids ride down a hill on a rusted, makeshift vespa feels kinetic, dangerous, and most importantly, exhilarating.
And that really is Luca in a nutshell: exhilarating. Even when at times it’s presenting as a quiet, meditative, slice-of-life film about being a kid in an old-fashioned place that feels lived-in, but maybe a little too small. It’s thrilling to watch these characters grow, learn, and change, and the same goes for Pixar itself, constantly challenging itself with new worlds to throw at audiences who are more skeptical than ever of the brand’s reputation for manipulating emotions in any way they can. When it comes to Luca, they certainly found a refreshing way to do it again.