Film Review – Luca
Disney/Pixar’s latest offering, Luca (2021) is a gorgeously rendered, brightly colored fantasy tackling themes of friendship and identity. It is also one of the slightest productions we’ve seen from the studio. In the grand scheme of things, it’s a perfectly acceptable, family friendly movie with a strong positive message. But it also misses that magical touch that has made their previous efforts so charming and memorable. It borrows heavily from other, better animated films, while not establishing enough of an identity to leave a lasting impact. Not every movie has to be a masterpiece, but for a studio that has produced so many of them, this feels like a lower tier entry.
Is every film a bit derivative of other films? Yes. Nearly every piece of art has been inspired by something that has come before it. However, in the case of Luca, the repetitiveness is more blatant. The story of sea creatures traveling to the surface disguised as humans will call to mind The Little Mermaid (1989). Characters learning to accept one another beyond their appearances has echoes of Beauty and the Beast (1991). Parents learning to let their kids grow up was explored in Finding Nemo (2003). Friendship between different species set in gorgeous European locales is reminiscent of Ratatouille (2007). I’m not saying that borrowing certain elements is a bad thing (I’m the guy who defends Avatar (2009) despite its lack of originality). What I am saying is this doesn’t do enough with those elements to rise above the comparisons.
Directed by Enrico Casarosa and written by Jesse Andrews and Mike Jones, the narrative centers on the Italian fishing town of Portorosso. In the nearby waters, Luca (Jacob Tremblay) is a young sea monster who yearns to explore the surface, despite the warnings of his parents (Maya Rudolph, Jim Gaffigan). Luca’s luck changes when he befriends Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), a fellow sea monster who has been living above the water. To Luca’s shock, he discovers that when a sea monster steps on land, they immediately change into human form (this is never explained). Luca and Alberto’s friendship blossoms as they explore the surface world, dreaming of buying a Vespa and traveling the world.
Their opportunity comes when they meet Giulia (Emma Berman) a human who lives in town. Giulia tells them of the Portorosso Cup Race, an annual triathlon she plans on entering. Hoping that the grand prize can help them earn the Vespa of their dreams, Luca and Alberto join forces with Giulia and enter the race. Standing in their way is the cocky and arrogant Ercole Visconti (Saverio Raimondo), who has won the race multiple years in a row. Ercole’s ego is so inflated that he believes people will come watch him eat pasta out of sheer admiration.
In terms of visual stylings, Luca fills the screen with eye popping scenery. Portorosso, with its hillside buildings pushed up against shimmering blue water, looks like a living postcard for the Amalfi Coast. The CGI creates clever gags involving the sea monsters’ transformations. Luca and Alberto can’t control when they change, so when they get wet they risk exposing themselves to humans. When a splash of water hits one of them, their blue and green scales are revealed. Some of the funnier sequences happen when Luca and Alberto try to dry themselves off before anyone notices.
The writing gives plenty of background for us to empathize with the central characters. Luca’s motivations are clear: he wishes to go beyond his small ocean home and gain experiences of his own. Alberto’s background is handled more subtly and with more melancholy. Behind the confidence and cool demeanor is a young boy dealing with isolation and abandonment. The scene in which he describes his family history makes for the strongest emotional moment of the whole film. Luca and Alberto’s relationship compliments one another, they accept one another for who they are. Those in the LGBTQ+ community may find a deeper allegory here – not in a sexual or romantic way, but in how the two find a connection for simply being themselves, human or sea monster. One of the running themes between the two is how they handle their inner fear, nicknaming it “Bruno.” Whenever one of them gets scared, the other encourages them to yell out, “Silencio, Bruno!”
And yet, with all the good things it has going for it, Luca still kept me at arm’s length. As I was watching it, I kept waiting for it to burrow in and hit my heartstrings in the way Disney/Pixar has done so often before. Sadly, that feeling never arrived. I admire the smaller scale and sunlit visual design, but I couldn’t help feeling that there was something missing. Some spark was not there – as though the narrative relied too heavily on proven formulas and didn’t set itself apart from other movies like it. Last year’s Wolfwalkers (2020) took a similar premise and created the best animated film of that year. The same can’t be said this time around. This was an enjoyable ride for what it was – perhaps that was its biggest misstep. It is what it is and nothing more.