Start with big dreams, add a dash of comedy, lots of charm and maybe a weepy splash, and you have a Pixar movie. “Luca” serves up the studio’s safe brand of crowd pleaser with a smooth and summery voilà — or perhaps “buon appetito,” like the other sprinklings of Italian that top off this film, would be more fitting.
Luca (Jacob Tremblay), a young sea monster, hails from a seabed that’s a less chaotic cousin to the aesthetic of “Finding Nemo.” He’s got big dreams to explore his world, so when his mom (voiced to perfection by Maya Rudolph) tells him absolutely not to go above the water, it’s only natural he disobeys.
On land, he meets Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), an aloof and noncommittal boy his age, who, like him, is a sea monster. Alberto has a big appetite for adventure — “silenzio, Bruno” is the film’s refrain, Alberto imploring Luca to ignore the voice in his head — but also for food, which will come in handy when the friends later team up to win the town’s triathlon. The legs of the race: swimming, pasta-eating and biking.
Their relationship is tested by their big secret. The two look like humans, but when they touch water, their smooth skin is replaced by scales and gills. The town (charmingly, “Portorosso”) doesn’t look kindly on the mythic sea creatures, with people such as town bully Ercole (Saverio Raimondo) eager to snap up reward money for dead monsters. Every little splash of water threatens the pair’s dreams of buying a Vespa and putt-putting into the sunset.
Thinking of these two as lovers would be a stretch. “Luca” is less a coming-of-age story than it is coasting on the coattails of young childhood, but at times, the film doesn’t seem to have gotten the message. After the entrance of new human friend Giulia (Emma Berman), Luca starts to lose interest in Alberto’s dreamy adventures. Knowledge, not life on the road, becomes the way for Luca to understand the world. Alberto, however, is jealous in a way that tests the film’s depth; there’s no confusion or intricacy to his jealousy.
The clumsy love isn’t the only neglected area. Luca’s undersea hometown, for example, isn’t given any fins to swim with, while the generous and welcoming Giulia remains severely underdeveloped — really, other than a vehicle for fun under the sun, who is she?
The issues are fairly innocent and occasionally indicative of lazy writing. The lack of attention to Alberto’s complexity seems like an oversight, but it’s also a result of director Enrico Casarosa’s desire to dive into the time in children’s lives before emotions such as jealousy are complicated by romance. Still, the two faintly wax romantic, casting marginal doubt over Casarosa’s claimed intent.
Bold hooks, aside from innuendo, typically aren’t in Pixar’s wheelhouse. Its stories often revolve around ultra-digestible and subtle plots, yet for the studio’s most visibly queer film, the question of whether to forgo tradition and embrace queer romance must have come up. The answer from “Luca” is a clear no, which instead offers a diluted but sweet taste of queer culture.
For some, Pixar’s approach to “Luca” will be a charming message of equality: Why should queer people be treated any differently than Pixar’s straight characters? Others will neglect Pixar’s style and see “Luca” as appropriation and a selective sanitizing of queer culture.
The last may be fair enough, given that the film keeps its protagonists from strongly exploring their affections by tugging at a connection beyond buddies but resigns love to shallow, novel exploration. Above all, however, “Luca,” like its characters, just wants to have a good time. It achieves its goal, delivering fun to its protagonists and audience alike.
Dominic Marziali covers film. Contact him at [email protected].