Pixar’s latest release “Luca” (rated PG) is very much like the gelato that is a ubiquitous background presence throughout the film — cool, colorful, and, save for a few disconcertingly American accents, quintessentially Italian.
The sweet, simple story begins with young sea monster Luca, who lives with his over-protective parents (Maya Rudolph and Jim Gaffigan) and whiles away his days herding fish. When, like “The Little Mermaid’s” Ariel, his fascination with the artifacts of the human world leads him to the surface, he discovers he turns into a two-legged boy in the dry air. Before you can say Mamma Mia!, he meets orphan Alberto, and the two best friends spend the summer roaming the fishing village of Portorossa on a quest for fun and adventure.
And that is about it. Other little plot points come into play: There’s a bully to be defeated, parental restrictions to be avoided, and a triathlon of swimming/bike-riding/pasta-eating to win so that the prize money can purchase their ultimate fantasy vehicle — a Vespa.
As they wander through water-colored cobbled streets, devilishly calling “What’s wrong with you, Stupido!” to the locals and generally causing harmless mayhem, we’re reminded of the rare charm of seeing boys being boys. The horseplay, the dares to perform audacious pranks and physical feats, the obsession with vehicles — all offer a refreshing, authentic portrayal of children as they actually are, rather than some artificial facsimile of pre-adolescence wrapped in a grown-up message.
Sadly, given the brutish, identity-obsessed era we live in, no human bond — no matter how age-old — is allowed to exist as straightforward friendship. Thus, Vanity Fair, in a review that smacks of a pedophiliac interest in sexualizing children, immediately posited that these childhood pals are really sharing a gay romance.
“That outline holds an obvious potential for queer allegory,” said chief critic Richard Lawson of the straightforward storyline. “And indeed many Pixar fans tracking the film’s development quickly labeled Luca as the studio’s ‘gay movie.’”
Ultimately, however, even Lawson has to admit there’s nothing there to support his thesis unless you believe boys can’t hug or throw an arm around each other without it being erotic. “Pixar is never going to make a movie, ostensibly for kids, that even hints at sex,” he concludes with gross disappointment.
Not to be outdone, Slate tweeted that the film is “Call Me By Your Name [a movie about a sexual relationship between an adult man and a teenage boy] with mer-boys.” And Collider, apparently missing all the interviews where writer/director Enrico Casarosa said he was inspired by the 1986 classic “Stand by Me,” called it a “bold and daring movie as it embraces a story of first love between two adolescent boys.”
Thankfully, Casarosa has already offered a swift rebuke to this kind of prurient speculation. “We really willfully went for a pre-pubescent story. This is all about platonic friendships,” he said in one interview. He was even more explicit in his comments to Digital Spy, saying, “I was really keen to talk about a friendship before girlfriends and boyfriends comes in to complicate things.”
One more note on the rash of coverage claiming that the hidden sea monsters equate to hidden sexuality: Feeling that you need to hide some part of your identity lest others find you weird, or worrying that you don’t quite fit in, isn’t unique to the LGBTQ experience. It is, in fact, universal to growing up. Only those who were stunted in their development toward emotional maturity could fail to realize that.
Gay groups don’t get to claim that theme as their own every time it appears in a work of art. And we shouldn’t let them.
Luca is a lovely film about the joy of wild childhood friendships that push you to bravery and help you discover who you are apart from your family. So moms and dads, don’t listen to the big media critics who want to twist the story into something it clearly isn’t. Pixar has made a sweet, safe (if somewhat slight), love letter to Italian summers and childhoods everywhere.