When the highs are as lofty as Pixar has delivered in the past, it’s hard not to pick on them when their achievements don’t measure up. The venerable animation house rarely puts out an outright stinker (The Good Dinosaur a notable exception), but sometimes their ambitions are a bit lower on the scale, and that’s okay. Summer pretty much didn’t exist for most of us last year, and now that we’re starting to get outside and travel, or to just enjoy the beach, a film like Luca arrives that is all about sun, fun, and friendship.
Luca is a cool summer treat and a visual delight. Is it as high-minded as some of Pixar’s other films? Not really, but even though this coming-of-age story hits a lot of familiar notes, there’s charm in the exotic Italian locale and unusual story of best buds who also happen to be sea monsters.
That’s right. The film centers on Luca (Jacob Tremblay), a young sea monster who lives in the ocean depths with his overprotective parents (voiced by Maya Rudolph and Jim Gaffigan) who don’t allow him to know much about the surface world…except that humans are to be feared. But like any kid who is just starting to edge his way into adolescence, Luca yearns to learn more about what is forbidden. He collects human items discarded into the water, like antique clocks and other trinkets. This kid wants freedom and he wants it bad.
He gets his opportunity upon meeting Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), an adventurous sea monster who has been having an exciting ol’ time living on land. What he knows that Luca doesn’t, is that when on dry land they take on human form, and can blend right on in. Well, reasonably so. They’re still sea creatures, smell like sea creatures, and act like sea creatures, which makes them an odd pair on the coastal village of Portorosso. But the duo have a mission in mind, and that’s to get their own Vespa so they can have even greater adventures around the world. To do it, they befriend the excitable red-haired Giulia (Emma Berman), who helps them enter a local triathlon (pasta eating is a big part of it) to win the prize money.
Vespa doesn’t really take off until the duo becomes a trio, with the unawares Giulia helping the boys fit in. She becomes especially close to Luca, teaching him the truth about stars (they aren’t fish), while also keeping them in the good graces of her father, who is obsessed with finding and killing sea monsters. Meanwhile, the local kids are besieged by water balloons as Luca’s parents, in their own human guises, have shown up in town to find their son. There’s also a subplot involving a local bully who dislikes Luca and Alberto for threatening his status as triathlon champion. The plot feels vaguely like the pod racer scene from The Phantom Menace. Eventually, Giuliana’s influence gets a little too great and there’s a split between the boys. It comes as they are becoming more at-home with their human lives, and must grapple with whether to leave behind their aquatic selves.
Directed by Enrico Casarosa, Luca employs a slightly different visual palette than other Pixar films. The simpler animation is reminiscent of his heartwarming 2011 short, La Luna, but captures a certain carefree spirit. It only becomes a distraction when exploring Luca’s underwater home, which is flat and lacking in any detail, a far cry from the ocean scenes in Pixar’s Finding Nemo. On land, it’s a completely different story. Portorosso is like something from out of a postcard; sun-kissed and picturesque, it’ll make you want to book a trip to the Italian Riviera to enjoy the food, the weather, and the friendly townsfolk.
While there’s a sense of danger that the boys will be discovered as inhuman, even that is taken care of with a generally lighthearted touch. Luca isn’t Pixar looking to break the mold. It’s as sweet and breezy as a scoop of gelato and who doesn’t like gelato?
Luca hits Disney+ on June 18th.