There’s something blissful about a summer vacation. The new locales you get to see, the food you have to try, and brand new people that will shape your values. In Luca, Pixar’s 2021 streaming hit, the idea of the life-changing vacation collides with a coming of age tale about making the world accommodate the person you really are.
The setting is 1950s Italy, where widespread fears of sea monsters persist. Unbeknownst to the townspeople, the sea monsters have built a friendly community beneath the surface. However, a young sea monster, named Luca, longs to cross the threshold into the human world, a goal his parents forbid for fear that he will be harmed by the humans. It’s a fear that is supported by everything we’ve seen from humans thus far.
However, things change when Luca meets Alberto – a slightly older, but much more sure of himself, a sea monster who spends his days on land. Luca discovers that both he and Alberto shed their scaly appearance on land, assuming the form of a human. Luca is free to blend into human society, going on adventures with Alberto in the Italian countryside, to the ignorance of his parents. Imagining a life where they can run off together, the pair befriend a local young girl, named Guila, who inspires them to enter the annual triathlon. The competition consists of swimming, biking, and eating pasta (of course, because Italians love pasta, very funny…), and the prize for winning is a Vespa. Luca and Alberto hope to win the Vespa and ride off into the sunset.
The concept of the ‘sea monster’, a creature based on folklore, has been historically symbolic. Many philosophers believe the creature is representative of the unconscious mind, a foray into a self that is hidden from the world and maybe even yourself. Other interpretations conclude that the symbol alludes to feelings of self that differ from the status quo. It’s important to note that the movie’s setting is a time in which society was a lot less accepting of sexuality that deviated from the norm, making closeted feelings a more ubiquitous experience in adolescence. So, is Pixar slyly trying to house a story about LGBTQ+ acceptance within a seemingly unassuming movie about “sea monsters”?
In situations like this, there will always be plausible deniability. There will also be the crowd who shouts “IT’S JUST A KIDS MOVIE!” as if these movies are incapable of having hidden meanings. But Disney, as a brand, has recently tried to depict homosexual characters by way of their live-action movies or animated shorts. This is the first feature-length Pixar film that has had queer undertones, and it feels deliberate. Early on, Alberto makes a point to Luca that he’ll be behind Alberto while they ride their bike. Seemingly irrelevant, just two male friends making the best of their situation. However, later when Luca daydreams about the Vespa, he imagines himself and Alberto riding it together, despite the fact that it is just his imagination.
Now, this brings up an interesting question when it comes to entertainment potentially coded with queer messaging. Is it taking away from platonic forms of male friendship, that take on a more affectionate bent than what is considered ‘normal’ for two “bros”? The answer to that may be complicated, but it’s important to remember that platonic male friendship has been a staple of entertainment, from coming-of-age tales to college comedies and buddy cop movies.
The platonic male relationship, one where a showcase of love isn’t out of the ordinary, is not endangered and still dwarfs queer relationships in terms of representation. Does that mean the internet may get it wrong on occasion, by shipping two same-sex characters when the creators intend them to be straight? Yes, that will happen. But entertainment consumption and criticism are also enriched by deeper inspection of its themes.
But the film’s outlook on relationships goes well beyond hidden emotions. What develops is a story about friendship, one in which Guila’s impact on Luca makes Alberto insecure. While Alberto just wants to have fun, Guila inspires Luca to want to fully integrate into human society, which includes enrolling in school. Guila is mostly oblivious that Alberto dislikes her, but the trio must come to a common ground in order to maintain their budding relationships.
If there is a major flaw with the movie, it has to do with how the conflict is resolved. We’ve established that the townsfolk are extremely prejudiced, but the movie goes for its happy ending without dramatizing the process these citizens went through to change their ways. We can argue that Luca and Alberto are such likable people that their assimilation seems natural, but when one key character literally hunts sea monsters for sport, it makes everyone’s change of heart less believable. It’s a climax that feels like a formality rather than earned.
Luca is far from Pixar’s best, but it is still fun family entertainment, with themes that adults may recognize but are still too far beneath the surface for children to notice. At the film’s end, one of our protagonists utilizes the rain to showcase both their human and sea monster side at once. It’s an indication that despite their new journey, he’ll continue to embody both of his identities. Wouldn’t we all appreciate the opportunity to be everything we want to be?