A theory: One of the reasons why there are so many films and TV shows that celebrate male childhood friendship—from Goonies to Stand By Me to Stranger Things, and the list goes on—is because adult men long to have that kind of closeness with their peers, but are discouraged by society against it. These works often contain a kind of carefree nostalgia tinged with melancholy, which is what makes them so effective.
Luca, the latest film from the redoubtable animation studio Pixar, directed and co-written by Enrico Casarosa, is such a film. It’s about many things—sea creatures, pasta, Italian fishing villages, Vespas—but most of all, it’s about the friendship between two boys.
Our hero is Luca Paguro (Jason Tremblay, as cute in animation form as he is in real life), a young sea creature who lives with his parents and grandmother under the sea. It’s not completely clear what kind of creatures Luca’s family are—not quite mermaids and mermen (they look more like anthropomorphic fish then half human/half fish hybrids) but similar. The Italian fisherman who dot the surface of the sea think the creatures dwelling below are scary sea monsters—in fact, Luca and his family are as afraid of the humans as the humans are of them.
Luca spends his days herding fish and daring himself to penetrate the surface of the water—verboten in his family—but he’s basically a nice boy, who listens to his parents. Then, one day, he is confronted by another sea creature, an outsider named Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), who’s about his age, maybe a bit older. Alberto leads Luca to the surface of the water and then to land where something remarkable occurs—both he and Luca turn into real boys. After a funny bit where Alberto teaches Luca to walk, reminiscent of “Put One Foot In Front of the Other” from Santa Claus is Coming to Town, we learn the rules: On land, the sea creatures become real humans, who can eat, breathe, run around, do whatever. But if they get wet they turn back into sea creatures until they dry off.
Alberto teaches Luca all about the ways of humans, and Luca is impressed and mesmerized by his new friend. This is the classic male friendship we’ve seen on film: Alberto is a good kid, slightly braggadocious, slightly full of shit, whose bravado is a bit of an act. And Luca drinks in everything he says, even when Alberto tells him that those twinkling things in the sky are fish.
Alberto shows Luca a picture of a Vespa and Luca becomes obsessed with owning one. This eventually leads the two boys to swim to the small fisherman’s village across the water, Portorosso.
There, they meet the spunky red-headed Giulia (Emma Berman), who spends summers with her one-armed fisherman Dad (Marco Barricelli), whose burly physique, gruff ways, and prodigious mustache belie a sweet temperament.
Giulia dreams of winning the Portorosso Cup, a triathlon of sorts that involves bike riding, swimming, and consuming massive quantities of pasta. (The key is not to vomit.) The prize money isn’t enough to buy a new Vespa, but it is enough to buy a junker one that the boys can fix up. They agree to team up with Giulia to take on the town bully, the preening, narcissistic Ercole Visconti (Saverio Raimondo), who wins the race every year.
Meanwhile, Luca’s parents (Maya Rudolph and Jim Gaffigan) are frantically looking for him. They emerge from the sea—yes, immediately transforming into an endearingly frumpy pair of middle-aged humans—and set forth to find their son. (They do this by dumping water on every passing child they see.)
Luca and Alberto are allowed to live in a tree house on Giulia’s property and take meals with the family. The cat literally smells something afoot—and snarls at the two fish-boys. They eat gelato and train for the race and enjoy themselves thoroughly, although the fear of being “outed” as sea monsters is ever-present, especially when it rains or they come near a body of water.
Everything changes when Luca starts to get closer to Giulia and Alberto gets jealous. Giulia teaches Luca about stars (no, not fish, silly) and solar systems and talks about all she plans to learn in school in Geneva next year. Luca is enthralled. He wants to go to school, too. Maybe Alberto can come with them?
Luca is different from a lot of Pixar films that deal with lofty subjects—mortality, consciousness, our role in the universe. I love those films but they can be a bit, well, much. Luca is a sweet, gentle, sun-kissed film, with gentle rhythms and a generous spirit. The animation is stellar—it will have you craving gelato and quaint Italian vacations, and dying to buy a Vespa (okay, I already wanted a Vespa). But mostly it will have you longing for your own childhood friendships—friends who took you on adventures, friends who helped you overcome your fears, friends who made you laugh until snot came out of your nose, friends who were maybe a little too possessive, and friends who always had your back. And those are friendships to be cherished, no matter what your gender.
Luca is now streaming on Disney +