From online discussions and beyond, there seems to be a general consensus on Pixar as the tear-jerker animation studio. “What if ___ had feelings?” is the tagline that many people associate with the latest projects from the Disney subsidiary. Led by chief creative officer Pete Docter, Pixar filmmakers have a knack for bringing effective, emotional storytelling to unconventional subjects and plots – their entire reputation leans on their mature filmmaking in a medium generally dominated by easily-consumable, “dumbed-down” children’s-fare.
In many ways, Luca represents a change of pace for the studio; rather than dealing with massive existential questions (a la Soul, Inside Out) or emotional journeys (Up, Onward), director Enrico Casarosa guides audiences on a jovial, exciting adventure. It’s like a cool glass of lemonade on a warm summer’s day – a refreshing and comforting reminder of the uplifting power of movies. Energetically optimistic and delightfully joyous, Luca wears its heart on its sleeve; a love letter to childhood summers and friendships.
Unsatisfied with the life he leads as a goatfish herder, it doesn’t take much for the eponymous Luca to become enamored with the surface world. When he meets surface-dwelling sea monster Alberto, the two quickly become best of friends – something Luca’s parents don’t very much approve of. Running away to the nearby town of Portorosso, Luca and Alberto seek a life free from oversight and limits. During their time topside, they discover that the human world offers as many opportunities as it does dangers.
As much as it is a fish-out-of-water story (quite literally), Luca is a coming-of-age tale. Mixing these two genres together to create a film about pushing the envelope and finding one’s own place could easily come across as heavy-handed, but Luca manages to steer on the side of charming thoughtfulness. Despite its relatively simple exterior, the film manages to tackle a number of angles for its central motif of overcoming doubt and following your heart.
Alberto is a primary motivating factor for Luca’s growth, yet does not limit his own agency as a character. The relationship between the two may feel one-note at first, but the introduction of Portorosso resident Giulia adds interesting complications to their dynamic. Being a human, Giulia has her eye on very different, yet alluring goals than the two human-passing sea monsters. Pulled between the human world, the sea monster world, and a globe-trotting dream of limitless freedom, Luca must decide for himself what path to take – all while protecting his identity as an unwelcome dweller of the deep.
Diving into his own upbringing on the Italian Riviera, Casarosa brings elements of his own childhood in breathtakingly gorgeous fashion and even adds some that feel distinctly ‘Pixar.’ The painterly landscape of Portorosso and its seaside view feel equal parts tangible and stylized, a picturesque representation of the small towns that dot the Italian coast of the Ligurian Sea. Above the sea, every part of the world feels fully realized; dilapidated ruins, weathered fishing boats, and rusty Vespas build up a lived-in atmosphere that only adds more life to the scenery’s vibrant characters and personalities.
Another massively successful part of selling the film’s setting in time and place is the soundtrack and Dan Romer’s uniquely expressive score. Plucky strings, pulsing piano, and pounding drums accompany whistling melodies to create a bold sense of soaring imagination and adventure that naturally coexist with nostalgic needle drops from Italian singers like Mina and Gianni Morandi. Departing from the usual Pixar sounds of Michael Giacchino and the Newmans makes for a tone that feels distinctly individualistic and warmly welcoming – existing in a very different area of musical pathos than the electronic etherealism of Soul.
Those familiar with Casarosa’s previous Pixar short, La Luna, will recognize his playful sensibilities in Luca’s most creative sequences. Inhabited by two-wheeled gatekeepers of freedom and celestial glowing fish, the film’s many fantastic dreams of heightened reality are triumphant moments of childlike wonder that will leave you begging for more. While they appropriately exist to demonstrate the inner thoughts of Luca himself, their inherent energetic displays of exuberant emotion almost demand a Disney movie that resides entirely in this realm of imagination.
In comparison to these fantastic dream sequences, it’s a shame that the underwater realm of the sea monsters feels so lacking. Every moment spent below the surface feels like a drag, and even though it does work narratively, it still feels like a missed opportunity to create a more interesting, well-developed environment in which these characters live. There are instances in the film where we are told about certain parts of the undersea ecosystem – a haunted fish graveyard, for example – that not only would have benefitted from some set-up earlier in the story, but would have also created a more complex and visually interesting introduction to this world. Instead, we never really get a visual grasp on the sea monster community or the sub-marine environment, leaving the stakes of Luca’s journey to the surface in question.
To make the obvious comparison, The Little Mermaid paints a varied, definitely not boring portrait of Atlantica and its surrounding regions before venturing to the surface in any real detail, but we still empathize with Ariel’s desire for something more. While Luca stays true to its lens of its protagonist’s less-than-notable daily experience as a sea monster, it comes at the detriment of a more interesting and creatively inspired world that could have narratively functioned just as well.
Thankfully, this perspective thrives best in the town of Portorosso, the location of the bulk of the film. Once topside, Luca is meeting new people, trying new foods, and learning new things left and right, creating an effortlessly immersive and layered environment that grows as he does. Wavering between predictable and free-flowing, the interconnected nature of Luca’s internal and external conflicts extend across the entire film, coming to a head in its third act.
While emotionally true to the rest of the film and a natural progression of its plot, the climax of Luca almost feels like a diversion from the mostly spontaneous nature that came before. Many will find a comfortable foot in the familiarity of this more substantial ending where the stakes are bigger, more clear and consistently reinforced, but others may long for a conclusion more attuned to the grounded, internal conflicts from earlier on. Luca’s adherence to familiar, overplayed animation and Western storytelling tropes makes for a less impactful climax, even if it feels sufficiently emotionally resonant within the story context.
It’s a question that tugs at the film’s very identity; in as many ways as Luca wants to exist “on vibes alone” and indulge itself in a relatively simple, intimate plot, it also builds itself around a premise that invites and demands big, dramatic conflict – one that cannot be ignored or left unresolved. The film opts to fill its third act with moments that curb the appetites of both wants, but the script, music, and direction have a distinct preference to a much bigger, less character-focused climax – one that loses that taste of perspective subjectivity that the film went to great lengths to preserve.
Luca premiering on Disney+ means that many will experience it alone in their slippers, though the film begs to be seen with company, whether friends or family, indoors or out. Anywhere you can find the biggest screen possible will do fine, but watching Luca and Alberto’s fun times on the Italian Riviera seems best suited for a poolside kick-back in the mid-summer sunshine.