Luca

Luca ★★★★★

around this time last year, Pixar generated a bunch of media buzz for including an ogre cop in Onward who briefly mentions her wife. headlines celebrated the studio’s first openly queer character, but even though that line represented a barrier broken, its inclusion was hardly meaningful as more than a performative bare minimum—a fleeting nod to the fact that same-sex partners exist, though barely in the background of a more important story. but their latest film, in many ways, offers a surprising contrast as something that is quietly, beautifully, the opposite.

in contrast to the highly publicized ogre cop, so far I’ve seen very little media attention about Luca that recognizes the film as a potential metaphor for coming of age as a queer kid. the topic isn’t approached in a way that is literal or stated on the surface; there’s no explicit confirmation about the identity of its leads, and the filmmakers (to my knowledge) haven’t discussed or presented their film in the context of LGBTQ+ representation. and yet, the story is unmistakably queer (strongly enough, I believe, to suggest at least some level of intent). in its own humble & genuine way, Luca employs magical realism to explore LGBTQ+ experiences through metaphor—not as a fleeting moment as in Onward, but in a larger sense, as the thematic essence of the narrative (general/vague spoilers ahead!

Luca’s central arc as a character involves crossing a scary threshold into an outside world that will not accept him for who he is—a process of “coming out” of hiding. initially, his parents restrict his freedom out of fear, urging him to remain hidden in the safety of being unseen. after all, by staying hidden, he can avoid the real threat of violent oppression that waits above. 

but then Luca meets a boy his age—and that boy is the catalyst for his journey into a frightening new world. Luca is guided by Alberto into a new space beyond his comfort zone; Alberto pushes him to break rules (embracing rather than repressing what he’d been conditioned to perceive as deviant up until now). a bond forms between the two of them on the beach, but in order to exist safely in the larger society beyond their individual island, there’s an important catch—the two boys can’t let the rest of world know about the identity they know they both share

the genre of monster movies is associated with a rich history of queer subtext, and Luca fits into that tradition of media studies perfectly. the plot device of magical transformation allows the film to express its queerest meanings, due to the way the boys must conceal their “monstrous” identity from being discovered. the townspeople, with their entrenched prejudice, make life difficult for this pair of adolescents who are hiding themselves (literal “fish out of water,” who are bullied as outsiders). 

as the boys navigate external judgment while concealing their internal selves, there's a dramatic moment of betrayal near the end of second act that reminds me strongly of Moonlightnot just because of the beach setting, but in the way oppressive social pressures pit one boy against the other, causing him to reject his identity to assimilate with the dominant society, while the other is exposed and punished, violently. the character work building to this moment is thoughtfully executed and the scene lands with heartbreaking impact. 

ultimately, it’s a public act of care for each other that causes their true identity to be exposed to the town (Alberto bringing Luca the umbrella, Luca running out into the rain to help Alberto). others stand up for the boys to protect them, and the final message of acceptance arrives loud and clear as the townsfolk re-evaluate their prejudices. the new visibility of Alberto and Luca even empowers a couple of other townsfolk to show their true colors as well. 👀

through this ending, Luca’s process of metaphorically “coming out” is finalized as his secret identity is no longer forced into secrecy. his mother reflects that “some people will never accept him,” but his grandma assures her that “some will” —and Luca is good at finding the good ones, as shown through the solidarity of those he has already befriended.

there's much more that can be praised about Luca that lets it earn a place among my favorite Pixar films—the colorful, expressive animation; the sense of pace and humor; the rich setting; the transcendent score; the intelligent escalating of tension & sweet emotional release, achieved through an emphasis on character work that’s prioritized rather than sacrificed in favor of a more sprawling story. 

but above all, as I focused on in this review, the surprising power of Luca is that the story it tells—and the particular nature of the struggle that story  represents, even in a way that isn’t overtly stated—might make some queer kids in the world feel seen and less alone out there, for reasons they may not even understand themselves. the compassionate, affirming potential of that message—combined with plenty of other charms—makes Luca perfect family viewing for pride month (and all year round) 💕

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