What makes a narrative explicitly queer? Is it a dedicated scene where a character verbalizes that they’re gay? Is it queer characters kissing, dating, and eventually falling in love? Does it need to involve Cate Blanchett pointing a gun in an extravagant fur coat while Rooney Mara clutches her chest? Or could it simply be Gay YearningTM, the hallmark of many LGBTQ relationships both onscreen and off? Does the story need to contain universal gay themes, and what are gay themes? Now, to be more specific, what makes a children’s narrative queer? Knowing the long history of homophobic censorship in children’s media, this almost feels like an entirely different question. When I was growing up in the ’90s and early 2000s, virtually no media intended for kids under the age of 12 was explicitly queer. Sure, Ursula from The Little Mermaid (1989) was based on the drag queen Divine and, in retrospect, the Pokemon anime’s main Team Rocket villains are clearly queer, but I don’t think I came across unambiguously LGBTQ characters in “age appropriate” stories until I was a preteen.
When I was in elementary school, Sailor Neptune and Sailor Uranus, the mysterious lesbian duo in Cartoon Network’s dub of Sailor Moon, were simply rewritten as very flirty cishet cousins (a.k.a. “cousbians”). When I was in my late teens, Princess Bubblegum and Marceline (Bubbline) had a complex and intimate onscreen relationship but didn’t actually get to kiss until the Adventure Time series finale—10 seasons after the show began airing. And when I was in my 20s, the fourth season of Avatar: Legend of Korra hinted at a romantic relationship between Korra and Asami (Korrasami), but failed to portray their romance in the same way that the franchise depicted its many other heterosexual relationships. These examples weren’t for creators’ lack of trying either; Adventure Time writer and storyboard artist Rebecca Sugar (who is queer) spent years pushing for a Bubbline romance, Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino made their Korrasami intentions clear online, and Naoko Takeuchi’s original Sailor Moon manga depicted multiple queer characters. Recently, Alex Hirsch, the creator of Gravity Falls and voice of King on The Owl House, a Disney Channel series that has been lauded for giving its protagonist a queer love interest, accused Disney studio executives of continually cutting LGBTQ scenes from its shows.
So, with the understanding that the landscape of mainstream children’s animation is still confined by homophobic standards, I’m usually forced to temper my expectations of queerness onscreen. Children’s media has long felt like the final frontier of queer representation, and truthfully, it still does. That’s why, when a movie like Disney-Pixar’s Luca comes out, I struggle with defining it in terms of queer representation. I can’t imagine a single queer person watching Luca and thinking of it as a categorically heterosexual narrative because we’re constantly searching for ourselves in queer characters and stories—coded and otherwise. For so long, unambiguous depictions of queer sexuality were forbidden, and LGBTQ viewers are so hungry for representation that we’ll take any (Italian) breadcrumbs we can get. Does Luca feel gay? Yes. But could it be more explicitly queer? Abso-fucking-lutely.
Still, despite its ambiguous representation, Luca might possibly be Disney’s queerest movie to date. Set on the Italian Riviera, Luca tells the story of a timid 13-year-old sea monster named Luca Paguro (Jacob Tremblay) who grows bored with his mundane underwater existence, where he herds goatfish under his parents’ watchful eye. When he meets Alberto Scorfano (Jack Dylan Grazer), another sea-monster boy who seems fearless in comparison, Luca is inspired to step (swim?) outside his comfort zone and explore life on land. Despite Luca’s parents repeatedly warning him about the dangers of going to the ocean’s surface, Alberto shows him how to take on a human form, blend in with other people, and silence his inner “Bruno,” a.k.a. his internalized homophobia. After a particularly bad fight with his parents, who threaten to send him to a place that’s parallel to conversion therapy, Luca runs away with Alberto and they begin permanently living on land as humans. The two laugh together, sleep in a treehouse together, and make plans to drive off into the sunset on a Vespa together. It’s very romantic.
While some viewers drew valid parallels between Luca and Call Me By Your Name (2017), a coming-of-age film about a gay romance also set during an idyllic Italian summer, the latest Pixar release reminded me more about the Oscar-nominated animated film Wolfwalkers (2020). Produced by Cartoon Saloon, the Irish studio known for Song of the Sea (2014) and The Breadwinner (2017), Wolfwalkers tells the story of Robyn Goodfellowe (Honor Kneafsey), a young English girl who’s forced to adhere to the strict rule of Lord Protector Cromwell (Simon McBurney) after he laid siege to 17th-century Kilkenny, Ireland. Under his Puritanical orders, Robyn must give up her love of hunting and exploring the wilderness with her father, Bill (Sean Bean), and spend her days cooking, cleaning, and scrubbing dishes in the scullery with the other girls. Stifled by the conservative gendered expectations placed on women in Kilkenny, and suffocated by her father’s well-meaning desire to keep her safe, Robyn begins sneaking off to explore the woods on the outskirts of town.
Similar to Luca, Robyn meets an outspoken and brave friend—a feisty girl named Mebh (Eva Whittaker)—who makes her question the world she lives in. Instead of being a sea-monster-turned-human, Mebh is a wolfwalker, a mythical being capable of shifting between human and wolf, healing wounds, and commanding other wolf packs. While in her wolf form, Mebh accidentally bites Robyn and turns her into a fellow wolfwalker, which is both a blessing and a curse. Robyn finally has the freedom to hunt, adventure, and spend unlimited time with Mebh, but her appearance in town leads the Lord Protector to command his army to burn down the forest where Mebh’s family lives in order to finally exterminate the wolf population and expand his colony. Notably, both narratives utilize monstrousness to signify difference and marginalization: In Luca, the residents of the fictional fishing town Portorosso are obsessed with capturing sea monsters, and in Wolfwalkers, the Lord Protector’s army devotes every night to hunting wolves and wolfwalkers alike. Sea monster mythology is deeply embedded in Portorosso culture, as is apparent by its art displays, including the town’s central sculptural fountain depicting a fisherman violently spearing a sea monster.
While the two films feature protagonists’ attempts to assimilate into human culture, they also ultimately do so under the threat of violence and discrimination.
According to Luca and Alberto’s friend Giulia (Emma Berman), “Everyone in Portorosso pretends to believe in sea monsters.” In Kilkenny, residents live in daily fear of wolves—and whispers about the existence of wolfwalkers spread through the town like wildfire. While the two films feature protagonists’ attempts to assimilate into human culture, they also ultimately do so under the threat of violence and discrimination. Luca and Wolfwalkers both culminate in angry mobs chasing, threatening, and committing acts of violence against their shape-shifting, queer-coded leads, which can be read and interpreted by queer audiences as shorthand for homophobia and compulsory heterosexuality. Despite a well-intentioned desire to protect their children from violence, both protagonists’ parents reinforce bigotry by instilling their kids with a sense of fear and shame. Although it’s played for laughs, Luca’s father’s (Jim Gaffigan) disgust over finding his son’s secret human paraphernalia—an analogue alarm clock and a playing card—reads like the underwater equivalent of a homophobic parent finding gay “evidence” in their child’s bedroom. Luca’s mom (Maya Rudolph) is so afraid that she literally tries to send her son to the bottom of the ocean to keep him safe, which ultimately backfires and drives Luca away.
Similarly, Bill’s reluctance to hear Robyn’s perspective or let her express herself is heartbreaking because he clearly loves and cares about his daughter, but knows that they live in a world determined to break girls like her. When Robyn finally “comes out” to her dad as a wolfwalker, his reaction is painful to watch: With tears in his eyes, Bill pleads, “No, Robyn. Please.” Even more heartbreaking are Robyn’s attempts to repress her true nature when she forces herself to go without sleep to avoid changing into her wolf form at night. “That fear of exposure, of outing herself and her truth, is the true thematic nature of the film,” Kevin Johnson writes in a recent piece for Den of Geek. But perhaps the most haunting interaction between Robyn and her dad is when he finally admits that he’s afraid—afraid of the Lord Protector, afraid of a world that hates difference, afraid he won’t be able to protect his daughter. Bill says, “I’m so afraid that one day you will end up in a cage,” to which Robyn replies, “But I already am in a cage.”
Although Wolfwalkers doesn’t count as explicitly queer representation, a quick Twitter search brings up hundreds of chaotic tweets from viewers noting the film’s queer themes, including, “wolfwalkers is so gay omg,” “Wolfwalkers is literally about being gay,” and simply, “WOLFWALKERS GAY??” The queerness of Luca has also been widely debated on social media, as well as by publications such as Vanity Fair, Polygon, and Insider, with the latter stating, “While the sea-monster allegory will speak to queer people, it’s a missed opportunity for Disney.” Realistically, I will probably never be able to definitively pin down the inherent qualities that make a narrative queer, let alone one created by a corporate beast like Disney. For now, I will be singing the praises of children’s films such as Luca and Wolfwalkers for moving the needle of representation a little further forward, and demanding better from animation studios who—like Bill Goodfellowe—are still too afraid to take risks. And, like the rest of queer Twitter, I’ll be thinking about Robyn putting a flower in Mebh’s hair and continue feverishly wondering: “WOLFWALKERS GAY??”