I liked Luca better than Toy Story 4. Let’s start it off that way. I’m not a devotee to the original trilogy, but I still just found the movie too big for its britches, having some sweet moments and surprises but relegating too many beloved characters to the side, displaying more than a few moments of illogic, and walking back on so many things the last movie established that they should’ve just picked a different story that could’ve coped better with previous setup. As for Luca, I think it’s better, but I can complain about it too. And honestly? My grade has a lot to do with real-world issues, perhaps even more than it has to do with the actual movie. What can I say? Every movie critic relates their reviews to the universe they grew up in at least a little bit, because reviews are opinions, and opinions are formed from experience.
Luca Paguro and Alberto Scorfano (voiced by Jacob Tremblay and Jack Dylan Grazer who both keep impressing me with every production they join) are what are known as sea monsters. They live under the waters fairly close to the town of Portorosso (which is fictional but reminding of Monterosso) where the fishermen dream of proving them real, but not as much as catching and gloriously killing them. Luca and Alberto also just recently met, and while Luca is very shy and Alberto is very outgoing, they find that they have a lot in common, for one thing not seeing eye to eye with their parents. Luca’s parents hate his curiosity of the world above the surface of the water, especially when it starts to really sprout from, ahem, whatchamacallits they leave behind and pique his desire to find out more.
Alberto, another home runaway, manages to lead/trick Luca into heading to the surface after Luca decides the tyranny of his parents’ forbidding is too much, and he finds out when up above what sea monsters really look like when dry; just like the humans. Alberto also shows Luca the legendary Vespa; a machine that takes you right to wherever you want to go, allowing you to explore the world and live a dream come true. They find out Portorosso is having a swim-eat-bike triathlon called the Portorosso Cup, with a Vespa being the grand prize. And we see Guilia Marcovaldo (Emma Berman), an ambitious young girl wanting to win to unseat the arrogant, bratty old five-time winner Ercole Viscoti (Saverio Raimondo). Giulia, Luca and Alberto end up forming a team for the triathlon, knowing the two of them can’t do the swim portion, and so they train, work with Giulia’s father to pay the admission, and learn maybe they don’t need a Vespa right away; maybe they can slow down and weigh their options. Sea monsters would never be accepted? Perhaps.
I was going through too many hardships to watch Luca two months ago, and having now gotten down to it, hopefully my review doesn’t feel like a repeat of anything else you’ve already read. Here’s the biggest compliments I’ll give the picture. The animation is incredible as usual. The characters are not made to look exactly like us but still fit with the supremely realistic and gorgeous world, like in Ratatouille and The Incredibles. You can almost smell the olive oil from the pasta and can almost feel the sunlight on your back until you feel the refreshing shock of diving into the water. Giulia flat out rocks, a perseverant leader who is just like everyone who has ever been shoved away by the pridefully rude, and her papa has a sense of concealed sadness and fear under his tough posture. The both of them are great character explorations.
Just like how Jacob Tremblay has a strange uncannily similar voice to Anthony Gonzalez when he voiced Miguel in Coco, while Coco had an outstanding display of Latino culture, Luca has a fair display of Italy. Luca isn’t really filling a desperately-needed hole here. The entertainment industry always visits Italy and its scenic cities. But giving credit where it’s due, better than any live-action film does it convince me to add it to my list of places to one day book a flight to. The celebration of crafting is another one of the movie’s strong points. The characters, outsiders to the world, experiment in different ways to ride down steep hills and fly off cliffsides, reminding me of when I was a kid I always dreamt of how I could use something of mine to accomplish an act I didn’t have the money or age requirement to properly get what would normally be required to do so. And the movie has a great sense of where kids their age are in the world, still innocent enough to be excited about possibilities most take for granted, but transitioning into a life you have to be hands-on, accept responsibilities, and some people will be competitive and not say “Good game” if they beat you.
But now here’s the elephant in the room. It was not that long ago at all when television contracts prevented people of any identity or orientation other than cisgender and heterosexual from being in cartoons, and lawsuits were filed once for an innocent episode of Postcards from Buster (the Arthur spinoff) with the revealing of two moms, and it wasn’t being preachy or anything. There are still so many pushbacks out there against those who want to support inclusion, but the issue gets a bit less so every year. Companies now really have to worry if they want to file anything for being against LGBT+ representation, and there are now entertainment mediums normalizing proper representation all the time. And would I classify Luca as one of these? Kind of. Look. Luca and Alberto are one of the cutest pairings since WALL-E and EVE. And there is not a kid out there who won’t go “They’re in love, aren’t they?” at least once, during the movie. And even if it didn’t have two boys joined at the hip; even if it didn’t have a boy who wanted another boy all to himself or showed stress at the idea of the boy and the girl becoming a thing, the story itself, of sea monsters hiding their identity and desiring to fit in, in a community that wants them dead, heads chopped off by their cleavers, is more than enough a comparison. In fact, director Enrico Casarosa said the gay subtext wasn’t his intention and he based it on a supremely close friendship he had as a kid (his friend’s name was also Alberto), but it’s really hard to believe that so much would get by the filmmakers and writers. Casarosa also said it was meant to be a film with little kids who are still in the stage of innocence before discovering dating. But from an outing and a character playing along to protect himself but hurting someone else in the process, to how easy it is for the sea monsters to get wet and reveal themselves just like a secret being destroyed due to an unexpected mistake, to the clear desires for only having the two of them like a couple, to a big firm embrace most boys wouldn’t do with one another, Luca is gay crisis galore.
Or at least it would’ve been if it really owned up to it. I shouldn’t let an interview hurt the review, but the movie gets so close to the characters saying “I love you and I want to live with you forever and I want to kiss you, in front of the popcorn-fuelled audience watching us”, which would’ve been a milestone in animation from the studio that revolutionized the genre as we know it. But it just shies away from it. They don’t even really say “I love you”, and even though the love still shown between Luca and Alberto will help young kids learn acceptance, this quite visible step back ends the production on such an evidently lower note. From Pixar no less, who is renowned for not always having a perfect resolution (like having to say farewell to Andy in Toy Story 3, getting expelled in Monsters University, a family member passing by the end of Coco, and not reaching the exact planned destination in Onward) but those imperfect resolutions were purposeful and improved the movies through displays of happiness and prevail through setbacks. Not this time.
And there are other flaws. Not enough discussion is given about Alberto’s past, and we don’t understand his pushiness much at all by the time the film finishes. Luca’s parents end up finding out what he looks like in human form, and then they don’t have a good enough memory and keep going for everyone his size? Seemed a bit clunky.
I’m still recommending Luca, because it is a terrific metaphor for acceptance of not just homosexuals (though that is the main idea) but anyone who ever felt they wouldn’t be accepted into the world. But it could’ve been so easy to take it up one level, and that one level would’ve made it one of Pixar’s greats. Instead it has to live on as an adorable incomplete. On one hand, I do not recommend this film. But, still…in the end…the romance between Luca and Alberto couldn’t be more precious. And maybe I talked a lot about only that in this review…but there’s little else in the movie to talk about.