The Pitch: Under the seas of the Italian Riviera live a race of sea creatures — friendly, but misunderstood, and fearful of the “land creatures” who live above the water where they dare not go. Everyone, that is, except Luca (Jacob Tremblay), a curious young sea creature who dreams of life above the surface but is held back by his overprotective mother (Maya Rudolph).
Enter a rebellious, orphaned sea creature named Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), who’s lived most of his life on land and drags Luca up to the surface so he can see what human life is really like. Together, the two assume human form and spend a life-changing summer on the sleepy (and fictional) Italian isle of Portorosso, eating pasta, scheming to buy a Vespa, and discovering themselves along the way.
Squall Me By Your Name: At first blush, Luca feels a bit sleepier and more uneventful than most of Pixar’s output, especially recently. Pixar typically operates in two modes: fresh, original, but deeply conceptual dives into broader adult concepts (Inside Out, Soul, Coco)…and revenue-driving sequels to their existing properties. Luca fits more closely into the former model, but without the ambition of its forebears.
Tempting as it may be, don’t dismiss Luca for not swinging for the fences: Enrico Casarosa’s feature debut is smaller, more intimate, concerned chiefly with the kind of impressionistic grace notes that don’t normally get this kind of focus in kid-oriented animated cinema. More than Pixar, its biggest influences are Fellini and Miyazaki — the tiny town of Portorosso (a cheeky nod to Ghibli classic Porco Rosso) thrums with the innocent, childlike energy of something like Amarcord, and its down-to-earth themes with a dash of the fantastic fit snugly against Kiki’s Delivery Service and My Neighbor Totoro. (The expressive, rounded character designs also feel like something out of Aardman Animation Studios more than typical Pixar.)
Visually, Casarosa nails the textures and atmosphere of his sun-dappled tale: great care is taken to render Portorosso with candy-colored vibrancy, from the clear blue skies of the town to every noodle of pasta Luca, Alberto, and human friend Giulia (Emma Berman) consumes. Dan Romer’s score is similarly sprightly and adventurous, evoking his work on Beasts of the Southern Wild with a decidedly Italian flavor.
Silencio, Bruno: All that atmosphere serves the friendship that sits comfortably at Luca‘s core, a fantastic little tale of stepping out of the familiar and discovering yourself in new environments. That wouldn’t work without the central friendship between Luca and Alberto, which is beautiful and fragile in all the best ways. In many ways, the two need each other: Luca needs Alberto’s devil-may-care attitude to push himself to exit his comfort zone, and Alberto needs a friend to make him feel less alone.
Their dynamic is beautifully reflective of the kind of formative friendships you have in your teen years — those gossamer summers with no responsibilities and endless possibility, with the perfect person by your side to experience it with.
Bittersweet Biscotti: Occasionally, Luca‘s narrative looseness gets disrupted by the inevitable Pixar need for some kind of conflict: here, it’s Luca and Alberto’s summer-long lust for a Vespa (“Vespa is freedom!”) and the triathlon for which they train all summer (complete with prototypical Italian bully to defeat). On top of that, their nature as sea creatures leaves them constantly vulnerable to discovery — any splash of water can reveal their true nature, which fuels a lot of fun, Aardman-esque slapstick as they try to hide until they can disguise themselves again.
Diverting as they may be, they do sometimes detract from the Luca/Alberto growing pains that are the film’s most interesting bits. (A subplot around Luca’s parents coming to land and searching for their son feels so marginal as to be superfluous.)
Still, the race provides plenty of structure for Luca‘s otherwise modest aspirations, and the training process itself starts to highlight the fundamental differences in Luca and Alberto’s life plans. Luca wants to go to school; Alberto relishes the freedom of Portorosso. The ways in which the two, in their worst moments, manipulate each other to get what they want out of the friendship makes for some interesting wrinkles in Luca‘s enchanting fabric.
You can also interpret the whole shape-shifter motif as having a queer subtext — the idea that you have to keep your true self “hidden” from an unforgiving world in order to fit in. The metaphor is a little messy, but trust me: in the last fifteen minutes, you’ll be bawling your eyes out too much to care.
The Verdict: Some may well dismiss Luca as “mid-tier” Pixar, perhaps out of frustration that it doesn’t fit those aforementioned molds. But in its stillness and modesty, I found a lot to adore; it’s a simple, charming story of two boys having the summer of their lives, and the big and small ways it changes the both of them. Granted, it’s more than a little shaggy in the middle, and some of its more disposable narrative threads don’t feel like they need to be there. But in the nuts and bolts of its storytelling, and its low-stakes charm, Luca may well be the best kid-focused Pixar tale since Coco.
Where’s It Playing? Luca sidles up to the Italian Riviera and spends an idle summer getting to know itself a bit better on Disney+ starting June 18th.