Luca: What Makes a Perfect Pixar Protagonist?

Kim Taylor-Foster
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Movies Streaming Disney

Audiences love a good villain. Fandom statistics show that visits to villain pages outnumber hero searches overall. While the unusual circumstances of the past 15 months or so have seen that changing – the gap is closing – antagonists in pop culture still reign supreme. It seems that dark times call for a hero for many of us, which makes perfect sense.

One community for which heroes have long outperformed villains, however, is Fandom’s Disney wiki. According to our data, Disney fans are more likely than other fans to be interested in both heroes and villains but the breakdown makes interesting reading. While they’re 94% more interested in villains, they’re 139% more interested in heroes than the typical pop culture fan. This means Disney fans buck the trend.

We spoke to director Enrico Casarosa and producer Andrea Warren ahead of the release of Disney-Pixar’s latest charming animation, Luca, and put these figures to them for some expert insight into why Disney fans dig heroes more than villains, and show more interest in both than most other Fandom visitors. They shed light on how Luca Pagura – a sea monster able to transform into human form and voiced by Jacob Tremblay – himself fits into the equation, too. We also asked the Disney community for their thoughts on what makes a good Pixar protagonist, and put it all together for a definitive answer to the question posed in the title.

Seeing the World Through Your Protagonist’s Eyes

Luca and friend Alberto explore the Italian town of Portorosso.

“The numbers are breaking my brain,” says Enrico Casarosa after I read out the hero/villain stats. For him, the interest in both protagonists and antagonists can be explained by the efforts on the part of the creative team that go into creating characters on both sides, with heroes winning out because of the importance placed on seeing the created world through their eyes.

“We take pride in delving and having really interesting characters in both places,” Casarosa says. “I feel like ultimately you see the world through your protagonist.”

For Luca, Casarosa paid attention to honing in on that idea.

“We thought a lot about that because we wanted a ‘kid world’. A sense of wonder was something that we were really after, being in that ‘kid world’,” continues Casarosa. “So hopefully our movie delivers on [that] – the fact that we put you in this ‘kid world’ and in Luca’s shoes, who is experiencing this Italian summer and Italian world for the first time. I will say, the one little note about our villain, we had a lot of fun with him. We wanted him to be really not a nice guy, for sure — we went for it — but we really wanted him to be funny in his bullying ways. Often we joked that we want three-dimensional villains, and we’re like with Ercole, two dimensions is enough: he’s not nice and he’s funny.”

“What makes the perfect protagonist is the supporting characters. The best supporting characters are clumsy, funny, definitely unique, but most importantly, they are what help shape the protagonist and are just as important.” – Disney community member, SodorBoy13

Big Dreams and Empathy

Luca’s villain is one of the elements that contribute towards shaping the hero – a factor common to all Pixar movies – but what else is there about the eponymous Luca that makes him a typical Pixar hero?

“He’s got a big wish,” says Casarosa. “Underneath it all, there’s something really activating him and, really, if he can get past his own ‘Bruno’, we call it — the way he limits himself and the way he’s not allowing himself to chase it — he’s got big dreams and a big spark, I feel. That’s what feels really important to have in a protagonist and what we look for often in our protagonists at Pixar.”

In Luca, “Silencio, Bruno” is the phrase used by Luca and sidekick, Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), when they are trying to quiet the naysaying voice within themselves — something viewers might associate with. For some Disney fans, it’s the ability to identify with a protagonist that’s key to creating a great Pixar hero. Andrea Warren agrees, and sees her younger self in Luca.

“I really love his curiosity and how that drives him,” the producer says. “I think I relate to him as a kid. I didn’t really know what I wanted to be when I grew up but I really was always driven by curiosity so I like a hero who relates more to that kind of kid — where you’re trying to figure it out and you’re seeing what comes your way and how you respond to it. So I love where Luca starts and ends because of what he learns along the way.”

“How they relate to the audience and overcome issues that a specific audience [member] would have, eg in Soul, 22’s problem of feeling worthless could relate to those encountering a hard time and [who also] feel as if they are worthless. In Up, you get a grumpy old man, Carl, who finds his sweet spot after losing Ellie. A major thing for the protagonist to do is to motivate or inspire the audience to feel better about themselves, or do what they love, be unique.” — SodorBoy13

The crafting of a relatable character didn’t stop at Luca in the film. When asked who her favourite Pixar protagonist is outside of Luca, Warren cites his new friend Giulia (voiced by Emma Berman) from the same film.

“I’m really proud of [Giulia] as a character in this film,” says Warren. “I love her combination of passion and tenacity along with her sense of feeling like an outsider and her vulnerabilities. We really tried hard to craft a female character that was a little different from others you’ve seen. She’s not fearless, she’s not a superhero kind of girl. She’s quirky and fun, and hopefully girls can find their own quirks and relate to her.”

Unique Qualities

Alberto helps bring out Luca's unique qualities.

Uniqueness, then, seems to be something the Pixar movies strive towards in their protagonists – so differences are paradoxically something Pixar heroes have in common.

“A good Pixar protagonist should be unique, not compared to the other people/things in the film but compared to other Pixar protagonists; that way, people go see your movie for something new and to be surprised. Also, I always love it when protagonists are the ones you don’t expect.” — Audrey Beaulieu

So what’s unique about Luca?

“From Day One we wanted to tell the story of more of an introvert; someone who is a little bit timid who is sheltered by his family,” says Casarosa. “It was an interesting challenge because I feel like with someone who is a little more internal it’s a little harder to portray and harder to understand. He is entertainingly odd, or feels a little bit out of place; he’s overpolite but feels awkward. The wonderful challenge was then how do we pull the audience into his head? And the imagination moments are one of the ways we did that. That moment when we find out ‘Oh, let’s go a little bit in his head’ was an important one and I hope that feels a little different because we wanted to have an introvert meeting an extrovert at the heart of the story.”

Merida Brave
Brave's Merida is one of Pixar's greatest and most complex protagonists.

While many fans will have their existing favourite Pixar heroes, Luca certainly stakes a claim for a place in future top character lists because he both plays by Pixar “rules” – having a big wish; being partially shaped by supporting characters — and has a uniqueness about him that resists stereotyping. He’s a three-dimensional character with personality traits that we can identify with. Following, of course, in the footsteps of some other perfect Pixar protagonists…

“Having traits that work as a double-edged sword [is what makes a perfect Pixar protagonist]. Merida (Brave) is a great example. She’s non-traditional … a free spirited and headstrong character but also is a great catalyst for what does the most damage (impulsive and stubborn). Her personality isn’t picture perfect, and that is what makes her such a great representation for what makes a good Pixar character. Woody and Buzz Lightyear followed the same pattern (Buzz being a bit egotistical and Woody being very stubborn).” — Dan Howell fan

Watch our full interview with Enrico Casarosa and Andrea Warren in the video at the top of the page. Luca premieres on Disney+ on June 18.

To dive further into the world of Luca and to snap up a selection of hand-picked swag, click here. For more Pixar goodness, visit the article below!

Kim Taylor-Foster
Kim Taylor-Foster is Entertainment Editor for Fandom in the UK. She was raised on an unsteady diet of video nasties and violent action flicks.