Imagine the following. It’s the 1950s. You are on an exotic summer holiday in Northern Italy, with cobblestoned streets, colourful shophouses, and charming fountains. There are also, without a doubt, lots of Italian pop songs and pasta involved. Dreamy, right? Well, catch this, you are also an adventurous sea monster child embarking on a journey of self-discovery. This pretty much sums up the context of Pixar’s latest film, Luca.
Aptly premiering at the Aquarium of Genoa on June 13 2021, Luca conveys a fantasy cum coming-of-age story of its eponymous protagonist. The film centralises around a pair of sea monster boys, Luca (Jacob Temblay) and Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), who have been driven by curiosity and a desire to be free. Luca is the awkward and shy protagonist who ran away from his overprotective but well-meaning parents (Jim Gaffigan and Maya Rudolph) while Alberto plays the part of the outspoken and rambunctious best friend.
The dynamic duo spends most of the film living as human boys in the fictional coastal town of Portorosso. In contact with water, their body parts will magically transform into their sea monster equivalents which would alarm others. Portorosso, which setting is inspired by the real-life Cinque Terre, has a history of hunting down sea monsters. You can imagine the startling stares and screams sea monsters would receive from locals. This explains why Luca and Alberto have to be careful with hiding their sea monster identity lest they are treated with hostility.
The feature-length directorial debut of Enrico Casarosa follows the boys accustoming to their new lives and achieving their goal of winning a local Children’s Triathlon which includes a series of swimming, cycling, and eating pasta. Their main objective is to win enough money to buy a vespa for Alberto’s never-ending dream to roam around the world. Again, dreamy right?
It all seems too good to be true for these boys until Luca has an epiphany that he would like to live as a normal boy and study in a school in Genoa with his new human friend, Giulia (Emma Berman). This sets the tone for the story as it explores the big dreams of Luca as well as the shifts in his close friendship with Alberto who increasingly grows jealous and insecure.
What sets Luca apart from its Pixar predecessors is all of the big changes the producers decided on whilst making the film. Pixar is currently having a creative shift, resulting in Luca being their first feature film to be made differently and unconventionally. Luca strikes out significantly with its 2D animation, as their animation team was inspired by Japanese cartoons. This method was used instead of the usual CGI animation, giving an intended sillier feel to each character. Casarosa is extremely fond of Studio Ghibli films and used Portorosso as a tribute to the 1992 film Porco Rosso.
Luca is notably Pixar's second film without voice actor John Ratzenberger, who played fan-favourite characters like Hamm in the Toy Story franchise as well as Mack in the Cars franchise. It also includes some modern takes which might have been too controversial or extreme for previous films. We have now progressed into a new age where dire topics can be shared and discussed in cartoon films made for children.
Representation is big in the diverse world of Luca. It features many characters who were born with disabilities as well as different kinds of family situations such as abandonment and divorce. Though a child, Alberto is deserted by his father, and he lives alone above the surface. Despondent, he tells everyone that his father is just not around that much.
Giulia, who feels like a misfit, comes from an unorthodox family. Her parents are divorced, and she splits her time between her father and mother. She usually stays with her father in Portorosso for the summer. Giulia’s father is an austere yet kind fisherman who was born with just one arm. He is a strong symbol for those who live with birth defects, conveying a message that he is just as normal and capable as anyone else despite him lacking a limb. In this sense, Giulia has a modern family.
Some viewers have linked Luca Guadagnino’s 2017 film Call Me By Your Name with Luca, calling the latter a child-friendly alternative. Both films have several uncanny similarities from harbouring a forbidden lifestyle to frolicking around during a summer break in Northern Italy. The films are also very dreamy. Many fans believed that Luca and Alfredo’s affectionate relationship shares a close resemblance to Elio and Oliver’s love for each other.
However, Casarosa has debunked the theory that Luca and Alfredo are gay characters, affirming that Luca was meant to explore the time in a child’s life before romance kicks in. In my opinion, I believe that Luca and Alfredo are truly the best of friends, and their rare bond should not be undermined in such a sense. However, the idea of Luca and Alberto being in a romantic relationship can be picked up for a sequel that is highly likely to happen if it is set sometime in the future.
A story about otherness, Luca has been heavily praised for including themes of inclusion and openness. It holds a hidden message for those who feel like a “fish out of water” in life. A sea monster who is shunned by society symbolises similar situations faced by discriminated groups such as the LGBTQ+ community and immigrants. At the end of the movie, Luca's sea monster grandmother (Sandy Martin) says that there will always be people who would not accept him for who he is but as long as he knows that there will be others who would accept him, it is fine for him to be on land as a human.
Some viewers have felt that the lack of precision is an act of generalisation on the producers’ part, calling it a “cookie-cutter” move to appeal to everyone who has had a hard time fitting into society. To them, this has downplayed the events of Luca as well as the important concept that it is perfectly all right to be weird in your own way.
Though producers acknowledge that the metaphor of being a sea monster can apply to various groups, they have said that they wanted to evoke a message that people have to accept themselves first for however they are different. Casarosa, being an advocator for diversity, has stated that the allegories to marginalised groups are unintentional but welcomes all interpretations.
To accept oneself for who one is such a beautiful message. No matter where we are in this world, there are bound to be people who would not accept us for the way we are. It is not up to us to control the predicaments we find ourselves in. However as long as we know that there are people out there who are rooting for us and would love us all the same, we should be contented in life and live it the best possible way. It is no doubt that Luca has touched the lives of many and has inspired self-love.
Grazer, who also starred in the DC film Shazam! found the courage to come out as bisexual in a livestream before proclaiming his character’s iconic line – Silenzio Bruno! This mantra can be first heard in the scene when Grazer’s character Alberto tries to convince Luca to ride a homemade scooter off a cliff and has been subsequently repeated several times as a motivational message to ignore one’s doubts and negativity.
Regardless of whether or not Luca was made to have a nuanced perspective in representing minority communities, one cannot deny that the film was produced beautifully with well-meaning messages. Luca is a film that will soon be considered as classic as beloved Pixar films like Ratatouille and Up, which coincidentally had Casarosa as a storyboard artist, considering how many people will be able to relate to its crucial themes. It is no doubt that Luca has set the tone for future Pixar films to be more progressive and less cliché.