Between failing to capitalize on Frozen’s queer subtext to positioning a cop mentioning her girlfriend in passing as a watershed moment, I’ve long since stopped hoping Disney would put queer characters on the big screen. This is the same company that, in the midst of putting out Avengers: Endgame, the movie that would go on to be the highest-grossing film of all time (for a time, at least), thought sitting one of its directors in front of a camera to play a nameless gay man telling Captain America about his dating life was taking a hard stance. It wasn’t, but that’s the game Disney has been playing. It will sell keychains and pins of Mickey Mouse adorned in the Pride Flag while coming up with the absolute most bare minimum queer characters to slip into its stories of hetero folks doing hetero things. So it wasn’t really a surprise to hear that Disney and Pixar were adamant leading into Luca, the latter studio’s latest animated feature, that it was 100% two sea monster bros chilling in Italy five feet apart cuz they’re not gay.
But goddamn, is this movie gay.
Not specifically, of course. Pixar heads’ plausible deniability of the queer allegories of Luca only works if it’s not actually about two gay teens coming to terms with their identities and their place in the world. But it’s a movie that so neatly fits with a coming-out narrative that it’s impossible to imagine no one working on it tapped their coworker on the shoulder and asked, “this is clearly an allegory for coming out, right?”
Spoilers for the whole movie follow:
Perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s lay the foundation for Luca’s gay story before we talk about the overt ways the movie more or less outs itself (pun intended) by the end. Our titular hero is a sea monster whose life is mostly just herding fish for his parents while they preach the fear of God into him about the surface world. For these sea monsters, leaving the ocean results in what Luca calls “the change,” in which a human form camouflages their scales and gills. Luca is curious about the surface but has been conditioned to be too terrified of it to even consider leaving the fins and fish behind to see what’s out there.
That’s until he meets Alberto, another sea monster that goes freely back and forth between the sea and the surface. He piques Luca’s interest, and they spend time on land getting to know each other and dreaming of traveling the world together on a Vespa. They even spend time building several makeshift vehicles in hopes that one day they’ll achieve their dream.
But after Luca’s extracurricular activities are discovered by his parents, they tell him he’s being sent away to live with his Uncle Ugo deep in the lower depths of the ocean while he thinks about what he’s done and what his parents want for him. With a new rebellious spirit, Luca runs away with Alberto to the (fake) Italian city of Portorosso, where the two live among the humans, all while keeping the truth of who and what they are a secret from everyone around them. That means being wary of any water that might get on them and reveal their identities as sea monsters. But the boys have to win a contest to earn money to buy a Vespa. Then they can travel the world without fear of persecution from Luca’s parents or the humans who don’t even know that sea monsters walk among them.
Director Enrico Casarosa insists Luca is a story of two boys’ friendship, and since neither boy confesses otherwise, that is technically true. But the allegories between it and an exploration of one’s own identity, and the act of keeping it secret for one’s own safety after years of conditioning from a smothering, puritanical homelife, aren’t subtle. While Luca presents its stakes on a very teenage scale, it’s not without some charged moments where local bully and antagonist Ercole Visconti attacks both boys while telling them “they don’t belong” in the town of Portorosso and that “nobody wants them there.” Watching two young boys violently othered both physically and with the language used against them, the imagery of these scenes is pretty loaded.
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There’s even a heartbreaking scene at the beginning of the movie’s third act, where Luca and Alberto are seen fighting over the former’s desire to stay in the human world rather than the two taking their Vespa and driving off into the sunset. Alberto’s jealousy at Luca’s human connections has become apparent. As the fight escalates, he says what’s been lingering over the two for the whole movie: “what happens when anyone sees you?” To demonstrate, Alberto walks into the ocean and reveals his sea monster form to their friend Giulia. The locals are spooked, and then Luca pretends to be scared of Alberto as Ercole and his goons throw harpoons at him. No questions asked. He’s not like them, so he must be purged from the town.
Eventually, Luca pushes back against Ercole’s attempts to evict the sea monsters out of the town, as both boys, in an attempt to save each other, end up revealing themselves to the citizens of Portorosso. There’s a town-wide shock, but the connections they’ve already made speak for them. They’re loved members of the community. It doesn’t matter that they’re not the same as everyone else. They’re still Luca and Alberto.
At the end of the movie, Luca’s grandmother practically looks at the camera and confirms every allegory the movie’s put into place:
“Some people, they’ll never accept him. But some will. And he seems to know how to find the good ones.”
Luca might not be an unambiguous gay teen love story. In that way, much of Pixar’s messaging has been pretty much accurate. Although Luca and Alberto’s relationship is easy to read as romantic, the relationship is never outwardly established as such. But it clearly leaves on a note of two kids that will probably figure shit out when they’re older. And honestly, reading the whole thing as a totally platonic relationship feels like a stretch. But as a movie about being yourself in the face of adversity, Luca is not even dealing with the subtext of a queer experience. It’s text. Not in the way Disney and Pixar should be making moves, but in the only way it ever has: behind layers of metaphor that only the most willfully blind person or well-paid studio head can deny.