There’s something human-y about Luca Paguro.
Oh, sure, there’s something fishy about him, too. But that only stands to reason, given his scales and fins and whatnot. Where Luca comes from—somewhere in the briny deep near Italy—that’s positively normal. While his father raises competition show crabs and his mother frets, Luca shepherds the family’s flock of fish. (Which would make him a fisherd, I guess.) And even though the Paguro family can venture onto dry land—rumor has it that Grandma used to hit the town on weekends—why would they? It’s populated by monsters, by gum, monsters who’d want nothing more than to skewer creatures like them and hang them up above the fireplace.
But while Luca’s terrified of the land and those who dwell there (as his mother says he should be), he’s curiously drawn to it, too.
As well he should be.
So says Luca’s new friend, Alberto. He’s a little older than Luca, and yeah, he came from the sea himself. But Alberto lives all by his lonesome on dry land, and he considers himself “kind of an expert” on the whole terra firma thing. When he yanks Luca out of the water, he knows full well the kid’s going to change into a human form—just like he did. And he knows that human form can take a little getting used to, what with the whole clothes and air and walking thing and all.
“Walking is just like swimming,” Alberto lectures. “But without fins. Or a tail. And also there’s no water. Otherwise, it’s like the exact same thing.”
Clearly, Alberto knows everything about everything, and Luca idolizes him. But after a few days up top and one late night getting home, Luca discovers his worried mom and dad waiting up for him—along with Uncle Ugo, the family’s toothy, see-through relative from deeper waters. Apparently, Uncle Ugo is there to take Luca to the deep, black, sunlight-deprived sea, about which he paints a less-than-exciting picture.
“There’s nothing to see anyway,” Ugo says. “Or do. It’s just you and your thoughts—and all the whale carcass you can eat.”
Luca loves his mom and dad. But he sure doesn’t want to go with Uncle Ugo. He’s enchanted with the land above—its sunshine and gravity and, most especially, its motorized scooters. And so—encouraged and accompanied by Alberto—Luca runs away, away to the human town of Portorosso, filled with dry cobblestoned streets and colorful buildings and fish-eating residents. Residents who all seem to own several harpoons. Residents who’ve heard about some sea monster sightings and are on high alert for anything that might be the least bit sea-monsterish.
The two new human boys in their midst certainly look normal enough—as long as they don’t get wet. But any little bit of water brings out their true natures, dip by dip, drip by drip. Luca and Alberto sure better hope it never rains.
So Alberto and Luca shout when they feel their fears and doubts getting in the way of their grand plans. And there’s some merit to getting Bruno to be quiet. Luca is a coming-of-age story, and to grow up demands that you take some chances. People who always live in fear and doubt—who always worry what might happen—wind up living pretty small, disappointing lives. Can you imagine what the Christian Church would look like if the Apostle Paul listened to his own version of Bruno?
Still, it’s important to distinguish the real voices of warning in your head from the voice of Bruno, and that’s not always easy. The movie does at least make a feint in that direction. When Alberto and Luca barrel down a very steep hill on a not-very-safe bike, Luca expresses, shall we say, concern.
“That’s Bruno talking!” Alberto shouts.
“No, I’m pretty sure that’s just me!” Luca says. And turns out, Luca’s right.
Luca also learns (as if he didn’t know already) that his parents really just want him to be safe and happy. And even though Luca envies Alberto’s apparently parent-free life at first, he eventually realizes that he’s the lucky one.
In Portorosso, they meet a new friend, Giulia, who also has a protective father—a burly, fearsome fisherman who never let his own missing arm slow him down. And while he seems deeply interested in hunting down any sea monsters he comes across, the depth of love he has for his daughter, and the kindness he shows to strangers, is rarely in doubt.
One more word: Luca is, in some ways, a nearly literal “fish-out-of-water story,” in which Luca, Alberto and even the very human Giulia often feel like outsiders. But together, these “under-the-dog” kids push against the town’s bullies and work together to compete in a local race.
We see a local cleric at times, though he’s typically not engaged in any real priestly duty. Giulia has a habit of “cursing,” under her breath when Luca or Antonio get a bit exasperating. But she actually combines the Italian word for saint with foodstuffs. For instance, she might exclaim something like, “Santo Gorgonzola!”
A card that Luca finds features a picture of a prince or knight holding a cup. It’s likely a reference to Italian playing cards (which, in the southern part of the country, have suits of swords, cups, coins and clubs). But it could conceivably be a reference to a tarot card called the Knight of Cups, which can be a symbol for purity, friendship and romantic quests.
In Luca’s first few transformations into a human, he appears shirtless with sort of a grass wrap around his middle. (Luca’s parents, when they come to town to find him, initially transform into the same sorts of get-ups that sport a bit of animated skin.) We learn that Giulia’s parents are together anymore; it’s unclear whether they are now divorced or if they perhaps weren’t married in the first place.
It’s rare we point out something that isn’t in the movie, but this seems worth a note: Some observers have opined that Luca is essentially an LGBTQ fable. They thought they saw Luca and Alberto’s transformation as a metaphor for being gay, and their close relationship something of a budding romance (name-checking, in fact, director Luca Guadagnimo’s Call Me by Your Name as a comparison point).
That interpretation isn’t borne out in the movie itself, where Luca and Alberto are just great childhood friends. And Luca director Enrico Casarosa rejects the comparison out of hand. “I love [the director’s] movies and he’s such a talent,” Cararosa told Yahoo! Entertainment, “but it truly goes without saying that we really willfully went for a prepubescent story … this is all about platonic friendships.”
The movie’s villain is a bully by the name of Ercole Visconti who means to do much more than snap towels at his enemies (and sometimes his friends). He punches someone smack in the gut, knocks people off their bikes and threatens plenty of people (and other things) with serious injury—sometimes brandishing a spear or harpoon. (Luca uses a spear of his own to get Enrico to back off from one of his friends though, too.)
Enrico even demands one of his two acolytes to repeatedly slap the other. And when one of Ercole’s “friends” dives underneath Ercole’s precious Vespa to prevent it from hitting the ground, Ercole is far more concerned with his scooter than his injured pal underneath.
The whole town of Portorosso would seem, visibly at least, to harbor deep antipathy for denizens of the deep. Carvings adorn old buildings around the square, depicting brave fishermen killing fearsome sea monsters. Giulia’s father thwacks the head off many a fish. Townsmen guard a harbor from sea monsters by holding and displaying many a horrific barbed instrument of fish capture.
Luca, Alberto and Giulia all are subject to slapstick violence throughout the film. (We won’t catalog all of that content, but as an example, both Luca and Alberto demonstrate gravity by leaping off the top of a ruined tower, tumbling through the branches of a nearby tree and landing in a heap at the tree’s base.) They also really like to ride either bikes or homemade “Vespas” down very dangerous inclines and off ramps, sometimes leading to injury or, in one case, nearly to death. (Luca kicks apart their fragile homemade scooter in mid-air—sending himself and Alberto into the water below rather than landing on the rock that had been directly underneath them.)
Giulia’s cat—named Machiavelli—learns Luca’s and Alberto’s secret early on, and he attacks them at least twice before they learn to mollify him with fish. (Luca and Alberto both bear scratches on their faces after one such attack.) Luca’s parents—trying to find Luca in a town full of normal humans—start throwing kids into fountains and pelting them with water balloons. A physical fight breaks out between two characters.
None, but the film does include a few winks toward profanity. For instance, Luca’s mother exclaims, “Ehhh, sharks” as an s-word stand-in. Luca himself utters a “holy carp” at one point.
Giulia’s dad seems to drink wine for dinner one evening.
Luca’s coming-of-age quest kicks off with a massive bit of disobedience. It begins when Luca runs off from his fisherding duties (leaving a stone replica of himself to fool the fish, and even his mother at a distance), but it culminates in Luca just running away—hoping that he and Alberto can buy a real Vespa and travel the world, barely giving his parents a second thought. You could argue that Luca’s parents even reward him at the end for his disobedience … or you could say that Mom and Dad just realized that they’d made some mistakes of their own and were doing their best to correct for them.
Obviously, Alberto and Luca lie pretty much to every human they meet for a while. Their first jabs at conversation with people go seriously awry. (Their greeting ends with the word “stupido,” which causes a couple of old women to hit them both with their purses.) They have atrocious table manners at first, having no clue how to use a fork. We hear that last year, during an important annual tournament (that includes eating a plate full of pasta), Giulia vomited.
Luca’s parents steal clothes to blend in. A couple of characters each do something hurtful to the other. We hear that Luca’s grandma not only went into town, but played cards there, too. She lies once to keep Luca out of trouble, and she seems to passively approve of his disobedience. Alberto picks his nose in one scene.
In a Disney+ missive, Luca director Enrico Casarosa says that he drew from his own life to make this movie.
“My best friend Alberto was a bit of a troublemaker, [while] I was very timid and had a bit of a sheltered life—we couldn’t have been more different,” Casarosa said. “We were also a bit of ‘outsiders,’ so it felt right to use sea monsters to express the idea that we felt a little different and not cool as kids. Alberto pushed me out of my comfort zone, and pushed me off many cliffs, metaphorically and not. I probably would not be here if I didn’t learn to chase my dreams from him.”
It’s in that relationship that we find both the core beauty of Luca—and its core reason for caution.
Outside some slapstick animated violence and a couple of winking asides to bad language, Luca has very few content problems to navigate. No, it’s not quite as squeaky clean as Pixar’s best movies—Toy Story and Finding Nemo come to mind—but when we point out some minor worries here and there, we’re really picking at undersea nits. And while this is a movie meant for kids (and is thus not quite as emotionally or philosophically rich for adults as some Disney/Pixar films) Pixar still knows how to craft a great, resonant story. It might just nurse out a tear or two from even jaded moms and dads.
But as real and as beautiful and as true as the friendship between Luca and Alberto can feel—and as important as sometimes those imperfect friendships can be in our development—we can’t escape another truth: Alberto’s kind of a bad influence. Luca knows it. His parents certainly discover it. And while Alberto comes to life as a fully formed, three-dimensional character who could really, really use a father figure, I do think it’s worth pumping the bicycle brakes on the movie for just a moment here.
In the real world, a metaphorical Luca might be just what a metaphorical Alberto needs to turn his life around. But just as easily, Alberto could help lead Luca to a childhood filled with detention.
Luca, the film, makes a passing reference to Pinocchio, and it seems fitting. In Disney’s classic 1940 version, the story of Pinocchio becomes a wall-to-wall cautionary fable about keeping the right sort of company. When Pinocchio falls in with a ne’er-do-well named Lampwick—who, like Alberto, is just a little too cool for school—the two are nearly turned into donkeys. (Pinocchio escapes, but just barely. Lampwick isn’t so lucky.)
Luca is, in some ways, the flip side of Pinocchio. His story illustrates how a little bit of trouble can lead to growth, and how the wrong sort of company can turn out all right in the end. It’s a more generous movie, one that emphasizes grace and compassion over Pinocchio’s stern lectures.
But sometimes as parents, it can be hard to tell just what story your kid is in.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.