A film Review of
Directed by Enrico Casarosa
Story and screenplay by Enrico Casarosa, Jesse Andrews, and Simon Stephenson
Disney +, 2021
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**Editor’s Note: This article contains spoilers for the Pixar Film Luca.**
Few film studios have a pedigree of consistently well-received material like Pixar Animation Studios. Through a massively successful partnership with distribution studio Disney, Pixar has been and remains to be the juggernaut of animated movies. Each film fired from the Pixar quiver comes with a noticeable confidence and self-assuredness. General audiences already know that they can attend these films with their children, and chances are there will be enough complexity to the storytelling that even the adults will find themselves engaged with the characters. It’s a winning formula that brings in both critical adoration and, more importantly (from a studio’s perspective), the green stuff time after time.
2021’s Luca checks all the boxes of expectation admirably. A kind of modern-day fable with likable and whimsical children for protagonists who interact with quirky but relatable adults, a story that is somehow incredibly intimate yet larger than life, a poignant ending, and lots of laughs along the way. But just because the film plays to the genre’s strengths doesn’t mean that it’s boring; on the contrary, Luca is a fun, eccentric film that exudes personality and leaves room for rumination regarding friendship and fatherhood.
Platonic Friendships. The set-up for Luca is pretty standard Pixar territory. Luca Paguro (Jacob Tremblay) is a young sea monster who lives off the Italian coastline. He passes his days on a farm as a shepherd of goatfish under the watchful eye of his helicopter mom, Daniela (Maya Rudolph), and distracted father, Lorenzo (Jim Gaffigan). Luca has learned from his parents to be wary of the boats passing overhead, indicators of the world above, the world of the humans, which Luca has been taught to avoid at all costs.
Of course, Luca eventually makes his way up there. And upon emerging from the water, learns that he has the ability to shape-shift into a human-looking boy. He also meets Alberto Scorfano (Jack Dylan Grazer), an outgoing but lonely sea monster who actually lives above the water, alone on an island some distance from a seaside town. Perplexed by Alberto’s free-spiritedness and enthralled with the world above, Luca begins spending all his time out of the water. When his parents discover what he’s up to, they threaten to send him to deeper waters, prompting Luca and Alberto to flee to the nearby town of Portorosso.
There, they meet misfit Giulia (Emma Berman) and her burly fisherman father, Massimo (Marco Barricelli). Giulia has her sights set on winning a local triathlon, but current champion and town bully Ercole (Saverio Raimondo) really wants her to know that he is more than happy to stand in her way. Against this backdrop unfolds a charming story about friendship and fatherhood, as Luca and Alberto struggle to come to terms with their dream of buying a Vespa scooter and traveling the world, crashing against newfound priorities that speak to what each boy truly wants out of life.
In the wake of the film’s initial announcement, there was some talk circulating that pointed out apparent similarities between Luca and the 2017 film, Call Me by Your Name, which focuses on a relationship between an older graduate student and a 17-year-old boy in Northern Italy. Of course, this opened the door for a flood of interpretations that attempted to frame the relationship between Luca and Alberto as being erotic in nature. But the film’s director, Enrico Casarosa, was quick to squash such interpretations, stating in an interview, “This is all about platonic friendships.”1
This notion of platonic friendships is one you don’t hear too much about. My own exposure to the term came by way of The X-Files (1993–2002, 2016, 2018), when I first heard “platonic” used to describe the relationship between series leads Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson). That is to say, a close, intimate relationship, but one that is not sexually charged or defined by physical intimacy — perhaps a true friendship. Current cultural trends seem diametrically opposed to these kinds of relationships, reading subtextual emotions and attractions into both same- and other-sex relationships. Yet a quick Google search will blow open the doors on the philosophical and historical views on the subject, and they are quite nuanced.2
Famed twentieth century Christian writer C. S. Lewis contended that what made Friendship (with a capital “F”) so profound was the fact that it was the most unnecessary kind of relationship needed to function in society. It was not required for survival, nor to reproduce as a species. It is unique in that it is chosen. He writes, “The possibility of going through life without the experience is rooted in that fact which separates Friendship so sharply from both the other loves [Eros and Affection]. Friendship is — in a sense not at all derogatory to it — the least natural of loves; the least instinctive, organic, biological, gregarious, and necessary….We can live and breed without Friendship”3 (emphasis in original).
Classic coming-of-age films, like Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me (1986), one of the inspirations behind Luca, feature these kinds of relationships, usually between characters of the same gender. Probably because childhood friendships are the ones that linger most palpably in the mind, before the mires of adulthood set in, and form the bedrock of bittersweet memories that come only in the wake of innocence lost. And we know that, biblically, there are any number of characters who forged intimate, platonic friendships with members of the same gender: Ruth and Naomi, David and Jonathan, Jesus and His disciples.
Perhaps the fact that an animated film geared toward children cannot so much as be announced in this culture without the gatekeepers descending and examining every frame for an angle or “subtext” that could be twisted to suggest some kind of queer reading of the material says more about the shape of the culture than the artifacts in question. In the words of a former professor of mine: sure, sometimes Freud is right. Other times, a cigar is just a cigar.
Absent Fathers. The other type of relationship that forms a crucial part of the film’s story is the relationship between fathers and their children. Luca’s father is too distracted by his burgeoning crab business to pay attention to his son’s escapades. Giulia’s father is too concerned with his fishing enterprise to recognize the obvious (that Luca and Alberto are, in fact, sea monsters). And Alberto’s father is, well, gone.
Alberto’s absent father is himself a kind of character in the film. Perhaps the most nuanced element of the story has to do with this character who doesn’t even appear. We are never actually told what happened to Alberto’s father. We don’t know if he abandoned Alberto intentionally, or if he left and was killed by fishermen. All we know is that Alberto waited a very long time for his father to return, only to be left wanting.
According to the U. S. Census Bureau, over 18 million children — that would be 1 in 4 — live without any sort of father figure in their home. Their research shows that children who are raised without a father-figure are at greater risks of poverty, are more likely to turn to drugs and alcohol as coping mechanisms, are more likely to drop out of high school, commit crimes, and ultimately end up in prison.4
And just to add a personal touch to those statistics, which can look a little like doomsday prophesying, one of my (many) jobs involves working with a ministry that focuses on incarcerated men who are releasing from prison and reentering society. When we receive an application from a man looking to enter our reentry program, and we see that he has a history of repeat offences and felony charges, there are usually certain factors that I can already assume are at play without even having to turn to the section detailing his personal history. Chief among them are divorced parents and absent or deceased fathers. And I cannot stress how often those assumptions are right on the money, to the point that it feels like every man who enters our program was in desperate need of a father figure. It happens so frequently that an older co-worker is very fond of saying, “At the end of the day, we become something like fathers to these men. That’s what they’re looking for, and they don’t even know it.”
As Christians, we should not turn a blind eye toward the responsibilities of the father. Consider Paul’s instruction to the fathers in the church at Ephesus: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4 NASB). Perhaps more than any other, that verse captures well the backbone of our reentry ministry, as we seek to do for these men what their biological fathers failed or were prevented from doing: bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
The Magic Touch. Blending whimsical childhood fantasies with real, earthy stories of family and friendship is a hallmark of Pixar’s storytelling. It’s a winning formula that consistently breeds some of the best animated movies that, though marketed to children, continue to speak to adults through the development of complex themes and philosophical notions. Luca is yet another thoughtful, earnest look at the joys of childhood and the pains of growing up.
Luca and Alberto never get to travel the world on their Vespa. In fact, they end up parting ways at the end of the film. Luca finally convinces his parents to let him attend school with Giulia, and Alberto sells the Vespa to help Luca with the funds to go. But Alberto hangs back in Portorosso, because he’s managed to find work with Giulia’s father, who has himself become a kind of father-figure for Alberto. So, everybody ends up finding their place — said place just looks a little different from what they initially envisioned. I suppose one could look at that ending and say, “Well, nobody got what they initially wanted. Isn’t that a downer?” By the same token, one could say, “They grew up and they learned, and they made the best choices in the end.” Both are true, to some degree.
But isn’t that just life? A funny mixture of promise and failure, choice and circumstance? I’ve always been partial to the way singer-songwriter Pierce Pettis describes life: “Here’s how life seems to me / Life is like therapy / It’s real expensive with no guarantees.”5 I suppose many a modern listener would listen to this particular song and suggest that Pettis is singing about his “muse,” the thing that “moves” him to go and do, much like the promise of an education that moves Luca to leave Portorosso behind. But anyone who listens carefully to Pettis’s body of work will know that the man, who calls himself a “most unworthy and undeserving Christ-follower,” speaks through his music about something — or, I suppose, someone — else.6
Can Christians get something out of Luca? I think so. But only if both sentimentality and cynicism are left at the door. Come into the film clear-eyed and wide-awake. And like a pearl hidden beneath the gleaming waters of the Mediterranean, you just might find something worth keeping from this quirky little tale of friendships, fatherhood, and sea monsters. —Cole Burgett
Cole Burgett is a seminary graduate, a graduate of Moody Bible Institute, and an author for the website Christ and Pop Culture.
- Enrico Casarosa, quoted in Kevin Polowy, “Pixar’s ‘Luca’ Debuts Trailer: Director Says Coming-of-age Adventure Influenced by Miyazaki, Fellini and ‘Stand by Me’,” Yahoo! Entertainment, https://sports.yahoo.com/luca-trailer-pixar-coming-of-age-miyazaki-fellini-stand-by-me-call-me-by-your-name-143451999.html?
- For a quick historical overview of this philosophical notion, check out “Platonic love” in Encyclopaedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Platonic-love.
- C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (1960; San Francisco: HarperOne, 2017), 74.
- See “The Proof Is In: Father Absence Harms Children,” National Fatherhood Initiative, https://www.fatherhood.org/father-absence-statistic.
- Pierce Pettis, “You Move Me,” Track 12 on Making Light of It, Compass Records, 1996. You can (and should) listen to it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q1jL-Irr2d8.
- Pierce Pettis, quoted in Steve West, “His Father’s Son: Singer-Songwriter Pierce Pettis on Life and Legacy,” Out Walking, March 8, 2019, https://www.outwalking.net/2019/03/his-fathers-son-singer-songwriter-pierce-pettis-on-life-and-legacy.html.