Warning: This article contains spoilers for the movie Luca
In my last article, I wrote about Pixar’s March 2020 release Onward, and spent some time exploring why it felt like such an unremarkable film despite being produced by the most famous 3D animation studio in the world. Onward was an average cookie cutter adventure story, but part of it was definitely due to Pixar’s frequent (and tired) insistence of having male characters lead their stories time and time again. I had trouble connecting to Onward, and posited that the story would have been more impactful with female characters anchoring the movie instead. The plot wouldn’t change a beat, but the themes explored would have felt fresher and more interesting. When I sat down to watch Pixar’s latest feature Luca, I was worried I would feel the same way about it that I felt about Onward and it’s protagonists, but I could not have been more wrong. Luca is not only an excellent film, it is (in my opinion) the best original feature Pixar has put out in four years. So why did Luca resonate so deeply with me while Onward fell short? The answer, like everything that makes Luca work so well, lies in the simplicity of it all.
LUCA SPOILERS BELOW//
Luca follows Luca Paguro, a young sea monster living in the ocean off the coast of a scenic 1950s Italian town. Luca is a boy who desperately wants to go to the surface at his parents’ behest. He collects trinkets from the “land monsters” (humans) that fall into the ocean, and longs to explore beyond his home. Shortly into the film, Luca meets another sea monster named Alberto, who has been living by himself on the surface. Alberto convinces Luca to join him, and the viewer learns that the sea monsters don a human disguise when on land. A fast friendship develops between Alberto and Luca, centered around the desire to acquire a Vespa so they can explore the world together. However, Luca gets caught by his mother, who threatens to send him away to the deeper parts of the ocean if he ever visits the surface again. In response, Luca and Alberto flee to the human town of Portorosso, where they attempt to blend in with the humans and try to find their Vespa. There, they meet Ercole Visconti, a teen bully and repeat champion of the Portorosso Cup Race, but a young girl named Guilia Marcovaldo rescues them. The three of them team up to compete in the Portorosso Cup, with Giulia taking over the swimming portion, Alberto the pasta-eating portion, and Luca the biking portion. Throughout the movie, the three of them bond as they train for the cup. Luca and Giulia develop their own friendship separate from the trio, bonding over outer space and school. As Luca begins to develop his own interests and personality, Alberto grows jealous. This ends in a conflict where Alberto reveals his true sea monster form, and Luca betrays him to Ercole and the bullies. Luca immediately regrets his decision, and decides to compete in the Portorosso Cup to win the Vespa to apologize to his friend. During the race, Luca’s identity is also revealed, but in the end, the town of Portorosso accepts the sea monsters, and Luca wins the Portorosso Cup. At the end of the movie, the viewer learns that Alberto sold the Vespa they bought with the prize money so Luca could follow his dreams and go to school with Giulia.
Luca is a deceptively simple movie. But that simplicity, coupled with a tight focus on character writing, make this movie such a triumph compared to Onward, which felt bloated and meandering. Luca’s worldbuilding does not ask you to think too hard, and everything is laid out in the first 20 minutes. The plot is straightforward, and the conflict is low key compared to Onward’s high stakes plot. In Luca, the boys need to win a race to buy their bike. It never gets deeper than that. These two factors allow the viewer to spend the rest of the movie laser focused on the character writing, and the simple approaches to the other areas of the movie allow characters like Luca and Alberto to have rich, moving arcs both together and individually. Luca’s arc as he comes out of his shell and develops friendships, passions, and interests feels genuine, and when he gets permission to go to school with Giulia, it is an emotional moment that feels so earned for him. Similarly, Alberto’s abandonment issues are deftly explored, and it is immensely rewarding to watch him quietly find a new family in Luca, and then in Massimo and the residents of Portorosso. Even Giulia has a little arc, where she learns that everything is easier (and better) with friends by her side. Luca feels like a slice of life movie, a genre that Pixar has never explored in their 25+ years of making films.
There is some meaningful representation in Luca that doesn’t feel shoehorned in or overemphasized, which in part can be drawn from the lackadaisy, slice of life vibe of the movie. Giulia herself is a breath of fresh air, and a character archetype that was sorely missing from Onward. Even if she is not the protagonist, having a female deuteragonist around to balance out the male protagonists made this movie that much easier to relate to. When Giulia finds out that Luca is also a sea monster, she does not reject him for who he is, or for lying to her. She stays by his side and tries to help. The subversion of that tired miscommunication trope made their friendship feel all the more genuine. Giulia’s father Massimo is disabled and divorced, but neither of these aspects of his life are ever drawn to in a way that feels preachy or invasive. It is simply who Massimo is, and Giulia (and later Alberto) has a very warm, positive relationship with him. Lastly, the movie does not explore a romance between Luca and Giulia at all, and instead there is a gentle undercurrent of queer subtext between Luca and Alberto. The director has denied that this subtext was intentional, but it is very easy to read Luca and Alberto’s relationship as something that could blossom into more than friends as they grow older.
Luca is a simple film, but it is also a beautiful film. It never asks too much of the viewer, and it leans into its strengths magnificently. While watching Luca, I couldn’t care less what the genders of the protagonists were, because I had bought fully into the characters and the journeys they were undergoing (something I could not say about Onward). They could have been male, female, or nonbinary and I would have found them compelling all the same. If a quieter, character driven, slice of life film like Luca is considered an experiment for Pixar, I truly hope they continue down this path going forward.