For a while now, Pixar has seemed invested in producing philosophical, high-concept films that stretch the definition of children’s entertainment. Contemplating the essential nature of the human soul and exploring the complicated internal workings of our minds by anthropomorphizing emotions, Pixar’s production slate consists of films that are certainly accessible to kids but aren’t afraid of making them work for an emotional payoff. The depth of storytelling involved is why so many of their pieces are so incredibly compelling for children and adults alike. Of course, Luca is a much simpler tale. But in a way, it’s surprisingly refreshing to see Pixar tackle a story that’s much more straightforward but still utterly charming. Luca is a bright, colorful exploration of a boy’s search for his true self. Although it might not be as creatively ambitious as some of Pixar’s other outings, it has a likeability factor that makes it far one of the more enjoyable films from the studio.
Luca (Jacob Tremblay) is a sea monster who lives off the coast of Italy with his family, and much like his mermaid Disney ancestor Ariel, he has a fascination with the human world. What begins with collecting knick-knacks that have fallen from fishing ships quickly escalates when he meets Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), a fellow sea monster who has been living on the surface in human guise since being abandoned by his father. (When sea monsters are exposed to air rather than water, they assume a human form, which they will maintain as long as they don’t get wet.)
Luca is a dreamer, but by nature very cautious: simultaneously entranced and terrified by humanity. By contrast, Alberto is much more devil-may-care and has a flightier nature that makes him the perfect companion for Luca. Where Luca hesitates, Alberto dives in headfirst with little regard for the consequences. But their relationship becomes more complicated as they venture into a nearby fishing town and join forces with local outcast Giulia (Emma Berman) to compete in a traditional Italian triathlon (cycling, swimming, and eating pasta), where Giulia introduces the imaginative and curious Luca to a larger world bursting with possibilities.
Luca is blessed with top-notch young voice talent in Tremblay and Grazer, who have grown into two of the most in-demand teen actors around. Gone are the days when you could always get away with casting a grown actress to voice the character of a young boy. Tremblay and Grazer, at 15 and 17 years old, respectively, are old enough to have spent several years in the industry gaining valuable acting experience, but still young enough to portray a believably childlike innocence and wonder at the world. Their dynamic is the glue that holds Luca together, and much of the film’s charm comes from their uniquely powerful bond with one another.
But the beauty of Luca is that while it functions perfectly well as a story of boyhood friendship, it has a queer-coded subtext that will likely make it incredibly meaningful for gay youth. There’s a tremendously powerful idea of having so much anxiety and fear built around staying hidden at all costs, never being able to show anyone the truest version of yourself to protect against persecution and social rejection that permeates Luca. There’s also the overwhelming relief at suddenly discovering other people like you and slowly being exposed to a larger world where you’re finally able to be yourself. “Vespa is freedom,” Luca reads from an advertisement hung in Alberto’s makeshift home. And the main appeal of their fantasy of riding a Vespa around the world is born out of that desire for freedom: to do what they want and, more importantly, to be who they are.
Luca is an enjoyable, breezy summer adventure along the Italian coast that may not be as weighty and fraught with philosophical underpinnings as some of its Pixar predecessors. Still, it is of no lesser quality for that. The performances of Tremblay and Grazer make their youthful misfit characters immediately endearing, and their immediately powerful bond of friendship makes one nostalgic for the type of quickly formed but intensely felt connections only children seem capable of making. As Pixar’s warmest, most preternaturally good-natured films in ages, Luca is an unexpected delight.