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Hey, my friend smells amazing!

Luca
(2021)

(SPOILERS) Pixar’s first gay movie? Not according to director Enrico Cassarosa (“This was really never in our plans. This was really about their friendship in that kind of pre-puberty world”). Perhaps it should have been, as that might have been an excuse – any excuse is worth a shot at this point – for Luca being so insipid and bereft of spark. You know, the way Soul could at least claim it was about something deep and meaningful as a defence for being entirely lacking as a distinctive and creatively engaging story in its own right.

Cassaro’s only previous writing credit – and directing, for that matter – is on 2011 short La Luna. But in Pixar’s quest to be as culturally credible as possible, a tale set in an Italian port probably seemed as ready cachet as any, if a little on the diluted side after Coco (you can easily imagine Pixar’s honchos scouring the office for some, any, cultural heritage they can score points with). His idea of a couple of sea monsters – a “metaphor for feeling different”, mmm-hmmm – passing as human for the summer amid a blossoming friendship has drawn comparisons to Call Me By Your Name. Fortunately, though, this is not a tale of lust and lack of caution between a grown man and a tween, but rather a fairly straightforward story of best friends, one that inevitably lends itself to other readings under the auspices of Disney’s current “go woke for broke” environment.

As such, even with one’s progressive faculties straining at the leash, Luca (Jacob Tremblay) and Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer) being budding buddies doesn’t quite work as a gay metaphor. Yes, local bully Visconti (Saverio Raimondo) bears all the characteristics of prejudiced persecutor, suggesting there’s “Something fishy about you two”. And when he discovers just what that is, affirming “Everyone is horrified and disgusted by you, because you are monsters”, the allusion is only underlined (further still, of the third act competition: “They can’t be the winners. They aren’t even people”). So Luca becomes about being who you are, which entails outing oneself at a crucial moment and thus gaining acceptance and support for said outing; Luca and Alberto, as gillmen, are very conveniently able to pass as human when out of water, not through some transhumanist miracle but a simple common-or-ocean physiological change. Which might suggest they’re bi. After all, Luca’s parents happily come out at the end too, so there are a number of hoops to reshape in order to make the metaphor consistent. Although, admittedly, the town’s couple of all-the-while resident old lesbians seem entirely credible.

This discussion of thematic subtext is at least something, suggesting Luca is much more fulfilling and resonant than it actually is, be that as an essay on tolerance and inclusivity or simply a fun family adventure. Even the sub-par Onward largely succeeded in the latter capacity, but Luca is mostly a bit of a snooze. And a plod. The movie starts out with the usual Pixar schtick – let’s make our “new” environment as identical to the human world as possible, but in this case fishy – so we’re beset by standard tropes of concerned/overbearing parents and transposed chores (Luca, voiced by Jacob Tremblay, herds goatfish). And interesting the ocean isn’t that polluted, such that human detritus is something to be marvelled at rather than revolted by. Greta must be seething.

When Luca first meets Alberto, an inordinate amount of – gay, presumably – time is spent on their getting to know each other, before the plot appears to decide it’s going to be about them getting their very own prized Vespa (I know, right?) Even beyond the characteristically perverse Pixar wish to bask in human innovations – as opposed to celebrating the wonders of nature, such as, say, the sea; probably not that surprising given the natural world is illusory in their virtual, pixelated oeuvre – it’s a desperately weak, unchallenging motivation.

It also runs in tandem with Luca discovering the joys of the human paradigm, such that he wants to go to school and learn all the lies bundled in with our freemasonic designation of the universe (a whole scene is taken up with such Neil deGrasse Tyson-esque indoctrination). Accompanying this are some intensely annoying, repetitive flights-of-fantasy dream sequences. It’s illustrative that a medium traditionally about indulging flights of fantasy is now reduced to the mundanity of its characters being forced to indulge them.

Cassaro cites Fellini as an influence (not a positive in my book) along with Aardman (I can see that in the character designs, but the last thing you want to imitate when it comes to Aardman is their humans). In the case of the former, I might charitably suggest that explains the dream fixation. It doesn’t excuse it, however. Emma Berman voices hyperactive redhead Giulia, seemingly there to have Luca stray from the unstraight and narrow, or simply to promote the joys of the human experience. Naturally, this means jealousy between the boys, patching things up and an affirmation of undying love (well, affection).

Also to be heard in Luca are Maya Rudolph (Luca’s mother, attempting to mollycoddle her not-gay son and keep him from human depravations). And a mercifully underused Sacha Baron Cohen as Luca’s uncle. Even more than Soul, Pixar’s very lucky the plandemic was here to gauze over what would surely have been a resounding lack of box office for this tepid affair. Their next undertaking finds Chinese-Canadian director Domee Shi (Bao) telling of a girl who turns into a giant red panda: Turning Red. Is that a political reference in the title? Surely that would be grossly insensitive. And bad for box office.


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