Pixar’s new film debuts digitally this Friday on Disney+
This week finds me reviewing the release of two new films featuring aquatic humanoid characters, the Lovecraftian indie horror The Deep Ones and, more anticipatedly, Pixar’s latest colorful animated feature, the literal fish-out-of-water tale Luca.
Luca is a sea-dwelling amphibious boy who lives who lives with his family off the Italian Riviera. Egged on by his new friend (of the same species) Alberto, he ventures to the surface world and discovers his body automatically transforms to human camouflage, but reverts to his amphibious state when wet, Splash-style — a risk mechanic which leads to many of the film’s laughs and plot conflicts.
The pair venture together into a nearby fishing village and try their hand at being human, quickly getting sized up by the town bully, Ercole, and also finding a new friend in a quirky misfit girl named Giulia.
From the jump, the film definitely gives off surprisingly big The Little Mermaid vibes: Luca is a teenage fish-person. He’s interested in the world above even to the point of collecting human objects, but is forbidden by his parents to go to the surface. Naturally this just makes him want to do it even more.
Thankfully those parallels which dominate the first act fall to the wayside once our protagonists venture into town, but not before Luca’s Mom threatens that if she needs to send him away to the deep ocean to remove the temptation of the surface world, then “so be it” — Disney fans will recognize this as echoing the exact words of King Triton to Ariel, which is so on-the-nose that I have to imagine the filmmakers included it winkingly to acknowledge the stories’ similarities.
Speaking of savvy fans, sharp-eyed Pixar lovers may pick up on a certain familiarity in the film’s characteristic visual style. That’s because director Enrico Casarosa also helmed and wrote the wonderfully imaginative short La Luna, which employs a very similar aesthetic.
Luca and Alberto enjoy their adventures in town, working and playing, preparing for a local triathlon event, and dreaming of owning a Vespa, but there’s a sad, gnawing resignation that their situation is not sustainable. Eventually they’ll be outed as “sea monsters”, or found by Luca’s worriedly searching parents. Even if they manage to evade discovery, Giulia will soon be departing for school — no matter what happens, it seems that the trio’s time together will inevitably be cut short so they must make the most of it.
The surface level story of being a “monster” in secret isn’t hard to interpret as an analogy for being unique or different (or more specifically, of gay panic and closeted queerness), with love and acceptance of other people being the key takeaway.
Overall, I rather enjoyed Luca, as did my 6-year-old daughter who watched it with me. As I mentioned, it’s noticeably derivative of The Little Mermaid at first, but quickly moves past that. There’s some cute situation-based humor and chuckles to be had, and in true Pixar fashion some genuine warmth and a positive message as well.