Luca is probably the most summery movie that Pixar’s ever made — a light, gentle, sweet tale of a young boy and his best friend who go on an adventure in a tiny Italian town. (They’re also both sea monsters, but more on that later.) There is pasta and gelato, fountains and cycling, a mustache-twirling villain and starry night skies. It’s a tiny vacation with a healthy serving of imagination.
Director Enrico Casarosa says the look of his new film is inspired by everything from Renaissance maps — the kind haunted around the edges by scaly sea monsters — to Japanese woodcuts and his own childhood memories of summers in southern Italy. It has a softer, more hand-drawn feeling than some other Pixar offerings, almost as if it’s 2D in places, which gives the impression of timelessness.
Luca could take place this summer or a century ago. It’s a folk tale, or perhaps a fable. And just like those kinds of stories, there’s a buried wisdom within Luca that shifts a little depending on who’s looking at it, like the color of light refracting off a wave.
The story centers on Luca (voiced by Jacob Tremblay), a shy young sea monster who herds fish by day in a cove off the coast of the Italian Riviera. He lives with his mother Daniela (Maya Rudolph), father Lorenzo (Jim Gaffigan), and crotchety badass of a grandmother (Sandy Martin). Luca is a good kid. He watches over the fish, who are little bubbly airheads with the mannerisms of sheep, and stays away from the surface. According to his parents, it’s dangerous up there. Especially for sea monsters, who are not themselves dangerous to humans but are regarded as such and hunted with fearsome spears. Don’t go near the humans.
Yet, like the Little Mermaid before him, Luca is curious about what’s going on up above. And when he finds some random detritus scattered in his fishes’ grazing region — an alarm clock, a little picture, a wrench — he starts to daydream.
One day, another young sea monster named Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer) appears to retrieve some of the artifacts. He coaxes Luca up to land. Luca reluctantly follows, and discovers to his amazement that he’s more well-equipped to survive above water than he’d expected. Alberto and Luca are fast friends, bound together by their mutual love of Vespas and, eventually, a grand adventure they embark upon to a nearby village called Portorosso. They meet a girl named Giulia (Emma Berman), who lives with her fisherman father (Marco Barricelli) and her marshmallow-shaped cat named Machiavelli. She enlists their help in winning Portorosso’s annual race.
Luca and Alberto are constantly worried they’ll be found out as loathsome sea monsters, not “normal” boys. And so they’re always hiding their true identities.
In some ways, it’s the oldest plot in the book: Someone who is an outsider — a beast, a poor stepsister, a mermaid, a princess with a hidden power — must conceal their identity in order to avoid detection among “normal” people. The message is familiar, too, the oldest in the Disney canon: Don’t be afraid to be yourself, because nobody else can be you, and those who love you are the only ones who matter.
Luca’s sun-drenched spin on the story locates it in a coming-of-age tale that’s also about overprotective parents (reminiscent of Finding Nemo) and the importance of having a friend who can pull us out of our darkest moments. I thought a little of last year’s Wolfwalkers (a non-Disney film, and probably better for it), which resonates with some of the same themes.
Despite its many plot threads, Luca is not the most complex film, philosophically, that Pixar has served up, or its most well-thought-out. Characters develop without warning or much explanation, which could be irritating if you’re entranced by Luca’s universe. Though it’s firmly rooted in an old-world Italian village, the evocation isn’t as luminous or all-encompassing as a film like Coco.
But Luca does make space for a prismatic variety of readings, a simple allegory with a few different applications. One it seems to allow, if not outright invite, is that it’s a little fable about quietly realizing a queer identity. Luca at first tells Alberto he’s a “good kid” and that “it’s bad up here.” A villain tells him that “everyone is afraid of you and disgusted by you.” Late in the film, we hear that he may never be accepted for who he is, but at least he’s learning to find people who will accept him anyway. (A quick reveal right at the end involving two elderly residents of Portorosso seems to underline the point.)
That’s not the only reading, probably because no matter who you are, you’ve probably lived through a time of feeling like the one on the outside who has to learn to blend in, to go undetected in order to save yourself. Being awkward, or artsy, or neurodivergent, or less well-off than your friends, or just not into whatever the in-crowd likes — that can feel dangerous and hazardous, especially to a child whose parents have warned them away from some other world. (There’s a special thanks in Luca’s credits to the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, an organization that fights religious prejudice, which gave me a whole new window into what the movie could be about.)
Does Luca follow those threads through to a meaningful ending? Not really. The film is more fairy tale than anything else; if a young viewer walks away with some affirmation of their feeling that they’re different, it won’t come with much guidance on how to cope with a society that still won’t accept them. Life rarely ties up so nicely. That’s always been a problem with Disney’s storytelling — easy answers and wishful thinking that could set up young audiences with expectations that the real world will never fulfill.
Still, what a work of art means to the audience depends on who’s looking at it. Luca has left all kinds of room for us each to walk around in its story. No matter how you read it, the film is a sparklingly rendered, inventive little comedy with nods to Italian films and Japanese art and a world that seems like it wandered out of a storybook and onto a screen. It’s a little summertime gift, a treasure from under the sea.
Luca premieres only on Disney+ on June 18.