Luca is an obviously gorgeous film, but its half-cooked conception and execution continues the recent trend of sub-par Pixar efforts.
The currently swirling rumors which claim that Luca is Pixar’s family-friendly version of Call Me By Your Name can safely be set aside. Sure, the film features two young men who forge an unbreakable bond during a summer spent in a seaside Italian village, both of whom work overtime to hide their true selves from others, forever in fear of judgment and ridicule. And okay, yes, both films possess equally bittersweet endings, although the specifics of Luca’s entail clasped hands and a departing train. But no, Luca is decidedly not Call Me By Your Name, and in fact, it’s misleading to even utter the pair in the same breath, as that implies something subversive going on beneath the surface of Enrico Casarosa’s animated spectacle. Rather, the reality is that there is nothing to be found, full stop. In both breadth and scope, Luca is by far Pixar’s most simplistic film, and that proclamation indeed takes into account the Cars trilogy and The Good Dinosaur. Now, is Luca better than these earlier efforts? Of course — its smaller scale lessens its margin of error. But those still awaiting a return to Pixar’s glory days will need to remain patient.
In fact, Luca feels more like Studio Ghibli’s Ponyo, a minor, kid-facing diversion that scans like a waste of time from such a talented animation powerhouse. Much has been made of the fact that this is the second Pixar film that the Mouse House has shuttled to its Disney+ streaming platform and made instantly free to its subscribers. Remembering last year’s Soul, the logic is starting to make sense, as both feel like little more than also-ran efforts. That’s not to say that the overall message of acceptance and inclusion that Luca is peddling isn’t welcome fodder for kids, but it’s a disservice to animated and children’s cinema to execute these exempla with so little complexity. And for a film that, minus end credits, runs only 84 minutes, Luca feels hopelessly padded, as if screenwriters Jesse Andrews and Mike Jones were at a loss as to how to properly expand their central narrative conceit, and so threw in multiple subplots that amount to mere distractions.
The titular Luca (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) is an underwater sea creature/monster who lives off the coast of Italy with his overprotective mother (Maya Rudolph), clueless father (Jim Gaffigan), and spunky grandmother (Sandy Martin). That these standard-issue Pixar archetypes are found within this particular film shouldn’t come as much of a surprise (nor should the mother’s dump truck ass, which is inexplicably becoming a staple image in the studio’s films). Luca desperately wants to break free from the boredom of his routine life and experience living on land, as his kind are blessed with the ability to take on human form the moment they step out of the water. Luca soon gets his wish upon meeting Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), a fellow sea creature who has taken up encampment on the shore as he anxiously awaits the return of his father. Together, the two try out this being human thing, eventually making their way to the local village of Portorosso where they meet spirited free-thinker and adrenaline junkie Giulia (Emma Berman). Together, the trio decide to enter the village’s annual triathlon, which involves swimming, pasta eating, and bike riding. Luca and Alberto want to take the prize money and buy a Vespa, an item that the boys view as their personal ticket to freedom. (It would need to be fact-checked, but it seems fairly safe to say that no film has ever been as obsessed with Vespas as Luca, and yes, that includes Roman Holiday.) But as shit begins to really hit the fan narratively, this plot quirk at least results in the film’s best, wisest bit of dialogue: “You don’t understand!” “You’re right, I don’t. Risking your life…for a Vespa?”
That all leads into a necessary discussion of Ercole (Saverio Raimondo), the Vespa-riding villain of Luca. Ercole is a seemingly middle-aged man who pretends to be sixteen each year so he can participate in the Portorosso Triathlon — which is open only to children — and win the prize money. Ercole has two ten-year-old boys who constantly hang out with him, acting as his minions, one of whom always carries a giant submarine sandwich in case Ercole ever gets hungry. Ercole hates the elusive sea creatures and wants to capture and kill one of them. At one point, he and his little buddies even get into a tussle with some oars while in a rowboat, the film briefly threatening to become Purple Noon. If the past few sentences didn’t make it clear, Ercole is easily one of the most idiosyncratic and greatest baddies ever to grace a Pixar film. He’s an absolute boon for the film, but the pro/con of his utterly strange presence is that it only serves to highlight the pure boilerplate character of everyone and everything else in Luca.
On a technical level, Pixar’s animation work is predictably gorgeous and yet another advancement of their craft, and while that evolution is essentially de facto at this point, it’s worth noting a comparison between the quality in Luca and what they achieved in their other oceanic flick Finding Nemo nearly two decades ago. The rich detail seen in each pixel of water here is testimony enough, and there’s a shot where the tide rushes onto a beach that is legitimately one of the most realistic bits of animation ever seen on film. Why, then, is the character design of Giulia’s father wholesale cribbed from the design of Flint’s dad from Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs? Why does everyone speak with a thick Italian accent except for the sea creatures, all of whom have Italian names but who are clearly voiced by Americans? And to that point, why is Giulia’s accent so demonstrably inconsistent? Luca is riddled with these and other minor iniquities, such as Pixar’s confusing choice to go to the child abandonment well to garner a few cheap tears instead of earning them organically through any actual development of its characters and the nuanced relationships they form. The prevailing feeling here, at least on a narrative and conceptual level, is one of half-assing it. It’s only near the film’s end that anything resembling golden-age Pixar makes an appearance, in a sequence where Luca and Alberto’s true selves are revealed. Instead of lazily ending on an image of friends and strangers hugging, Luca’s grandmother offers: “Some people, they will never accept [Luca], but some will. And he seems to know how to find the good ones.” It’s a welcome bit of sweetness to end this kids’ fable on, one which still tacitly acknowledges the darkness that touches all good things. If the film surrounding this sentiment had embraced the same soft dimensionality, Luca might have been something of a resurgence for Pixar rather than just more studio jetsam.
You can stream Enrico Casarosa’s Luca on Disney+ beginning on June 18.