Two Italian boys find themselves over a summer where anything is possible in a well-trodden but charming coming-of-ager
The sun is shining and the air is full of sea salt and excitement in Pixar’s featherlight coming-of-ager Luca. It’s the summer holidays on the Italian Riviera and young sea creature Luca Paguro (voiced by the ever peppy Jacob Tremblay) is gazing up at what exists beyond the surface – think H20: Just Add Water meets The Little Mermaid – until an encounter with the enigmatic fellow teen-cum-sea creature Alberto Scorfano (Jack Dylan Grazer, effervescent even when not physically present) changes his summer, and his life, forever.
The only problem? On land, Luca and Alberto can mingle among humans without causing a fuss, but the second they get wet, they return to their true form. How do you find your place in a brand new world when everyone is looking at you? How do you convince everyone you are just as worthy of love when they think you’re a monster?
It’s a familiar story: a young person feels stifled by their identity and their community until one person enters their life and shows them how big the world can be and how valuable their true self really is. The visuals and sound are a breath of fresh air, though, with vibrant animation that deliberately nods to the fantastical worlds of Studio Ghibli's Hayao Miyazaki, and a big-hearted score from Dan Romer (not a million miles away from his tremendous work on Beasts of the Southern Wild and Maniac) offering another reason to dive into this well-worn story of underdogs dreaming of freedom and acceptance.
Luca isn’t explicitly a queer romance between two teenage boys who find themselves by discovering the world through one another, but it certainly presents a lot of subtext that suggests otherwise. Perhaps after looking at high-stakes, devastating films like Call Me by Your Name or Summer of ’85, an explicit romantic throughline might have forced a more arduous undercurrent – the threat of heartbreak or discrimination onscreen, the promise of backlash from narrow-minded viewers online – thus undoing the breezy energy that makes Pixar’s latest (and shortest) feature such easy viewing.
If the story could have initially suggested a potential groundbreaking romance (for Pixar, at least) between Luca and Alberto in the first act, the film finds its footing with the introduction of Giulia Marcovaldo (a spirited Emma Berman), a young girl spending the summer at her dad’s home on the island of Portorosso and who becomes friends with the boys when they form a team for the Portorosso Cup Triathlon – she’ll swim, Luca will ride a bike, Alberto will eat pasta, with the prize money giving them the chance to buy a Vespa. She’s headstrong and ambitious, the boys are a little hapless – it’s a perfect balance, as they all learn from one another how to find friends who celebrate you as you are, while encouraging you to dream bigger and be the best version of yourself.
Naturally, the boys’ secret eventually comes out, and some caricatural townsfolk spit insults: “Everyone’s disgusted by you because you’re monsters.” The animosity doesn’t last long and the expected message – that some people will never accept you, but the right people will, and once you have the tools to find them nothing else matters – lands just as well as you'd expect
Seasoned cinephiles might dismiss Luca as another entry in a well-populated canon about youthful empowerment and the triumph of adversity against all odds. Yet for wide-eyed young viewers discovering this warm story of being brave enough to take a leap of faith, it’s as sweet and refreshing as that first dip in the sea on a hot summer’s day: you might have done it last year, the year before, and the year before that, but the tingle on your skin and the heady rush of adrenaline never loses its shine.
Luca is now streaming on Disney+.Where to watch