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Luca

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

This Pixar movie about two boys who dream of riding a Vespa together, is only available on Disney Plus (a curious move, given that Pixar Animation Studios is one of the biggest money makers for Disney).

“Luca” is the story of a young boy sea monster named Luca (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) who has become infatuated with seeing what lies above the surface and on the coastal Italian town of Portorosa. He is told by his parents that good kids (sea monsters) don’t venture to the surface. But when another boy sea monster his own age, Alberto (voiced by Jack Dylan Grazer) sparks his curiosity by showing him that he can venture onto land and change into human form once on the surface, Luca soon discovers that this place may be where he’s meant to be.  

This is a whimsical Pixar Italian folktale for sure, with all that entails. High quality animation, entertaining story with lots of levity, but also themes of fear, loss and acceptance told in a way that a child can digest. That said, it’s not hard to see “Luca” for what it is, with a particularly tender relationship between these two boys at its forefront and telling a story where these boys must hide their identity for fear of being hurt; where on multiple occasions they are referred to as “kids who are different”. Hell, the entire first act is Luca’s parents attempting to shelter him from a world they feel wouldn’t accept him because of differences nobody (no human) can actually see. And to top it off, the movie was released during Pride month. While it’s not implicitly stated, “Luca” is very much a gay allegory.

And I want to root for a movie which sees Disney and Pixar’s first gay leads, when it’s just so obvious. And I will still do so. But to have the director Enrico Casorosa come out publicly and dismiss any homosexual themes, as Disney blames the fact that “Luca” didn’t get a theatrical release due to COVID, when “Cruella” a Disney release from a few weeks ago, is playing in theaters worldwide, is upsetting to say the least. But I’m also not shocked. This is Disney we are talking about. A corporation that will give the world a gay character, but in order to appease shareholders and conservatives, they’ll also downplay the significance of the character publicly. That said, is this still a beautiful movie that is one of the most important films Disney has ever produced? Most definitely. Two things can be true at the same time.

Final Thought: While the plot of “Luca” could be seen as more simplistic than others in the Pixar canon, it’s more than a little exciting to finally see a film like this. An animated film which carries the same Pixar award worthy standards, and also celebrates an LGBTQ+ story; even if the corporate machine behind it attempts to gaslight us all, denying this watershed moment.      

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In the Heights

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Now playing in theaters and on HBO Max.

Adapted from the acclaimed Lin-Manuel Miranda Broadway musical, by writer Quiara Alegria Hudes (who also wrote the musical stage play book) “In the Heights” is not just a love letter/song to Latin Caribbean culture, but also a look at a place where these cultures thrive as one; a place called Washington Heights in New York City.  

Told as a “tall tale” of sorts to a group of children, by a Dominican man named Usnavi (Anthony Ramos). He tells the story of his dream as a young man to move back to the Dominican Republic after living in Washington Heights since childhood. The musical also follows a handful of other characters. The two other prominent storylines feature Nina (Leslie Grace) a Puerto Rican student who recently dropped out of college and has come back home to the Heights to break the news to her father (Jimmy Smits) and Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) a young Latina with dreams of parleying her fashion design aspirations into a one-way trip out of Washington Heights.

These storylines spotlight some of the topical political issues and everyday situations many Latino/Latino immigrants living in the U.S. find themselves going through today. And these storylines are only amplified by a plethora of stand-out performances from the entire cast, but specifically Ramos, Smits and Olga Merediz, who plays Abuela Claudia, an old Cuban woman with no children of her own, so instead she watches over the young people in this neighborhood. Merediz steals the show multiple times, injecting much needed life into this film’s lackluster initial hour. Her performance reaches its apex with her singing of “Paciencia Y Fe”, which is one of the most beautiful musical sequences put to film.  

Director Jon M. Chu (Step Up 2: The Streets, Crazy Rich Asians) is seemingly a perfect match for this production. The choreography for most of the song and dance numbers are handled with tremendous care for the culture and implemented with a high caliber of cinematic flair.   

That said, with all of the love I have for this movie, I must say that it took me over an hour to get into it. OVER AN HOUR! This is a film of two halves. During the first hour plus, “In the Heights” is shockingly flat, there are pacing problems, a lack of stakes and songs which are tragically forgettable. Although, as I said prior, while the bones of the three main stories are a nice start, I found myself bored with Chu’s delivery. This is why it was so shocking when around the seventy-minute mark, “In the Heights” sees Chu wake up and flex on us all. Beginning with the blackout/” Paciencia Y Fe” sequence, Chu doesn’t look back, giving us musical perfection for the following hour. Why it took so long to get to that point is a mystery. But once it does, rising tides lift all boats, as the acting, the storylines, the dance sequences, even the songs all reach a level which rivals anything out of “West Side Story”.   

Final Thought: “In the Heights” is a story of acceptance, homecomings and suenitos, told in the hip hop cadence Miranda is known for. This is a love letter that eventually became something which exceeded my high expectations…just maybe fast forward a bit if you can.

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