I’m somewhat concerned by the fact that the latest from Pixar is only available on Disney+. I’m troubled by the fact that this may never get a physical media release, and audiences won’t be able to see this without paying the monthly subscription fee.
On the other hand, the film industry is playing a lot of catch-up right now. Everyone’s trying to cram two years’ worth of movies into one year, and it’s highly doubtful that there will be enough multiplex screens to go around. So if the multimedia conglomerates are using their online streaming platforms to ease up the bottleneck, I suppose that’s not the worst thing ever. And anyway, at least Disney had the good sense not to charge an additional $30 premium.
Luca sets its stage in the Mediterranean Sea, off the coast of Italy. Our premise concerns Luca and Alberto (respectively voiced by Jacob Tremblay and Jack Dylan Grazer), two young boys in a species of amphibious creatures who turn into humans on land, but turn to fish monsters when exposed to water. Naturally, they’re feared and hated by the local fishermen who’ve seen or heard of them.
Luca spends his days underwater, shepherding fish for his family, though he secretly dreams of adventure and excitement outside his boring provincial life under the sea. His mother (Daniela, voiced by Maya Rudolph) is overprotective and overbearing because she’s so afraid of the “land monsters” and does her best to quash her son’s curiosity to keep him safe… Look, you’ve seen a movie before, right? You know where this is going.
By contrast, Alberto spends most of his time on land, enjoying his time walking around and breathing fresh air while gathering man-made scrap and indulging in all manner of idiotic stunts. His parents, incidentally, are nowhere to be seen. Oh, and Alberto is completely full of shit, nowhere near as intelligent or experienced as he says he is. In short order, Luca and Alberto cross paths and hijinks ensue.
Inevitably, Luca’s parents find out about his day trips to the surface, and his mother responds in the only way she knows how. Luca naturally responds to her strangling hold by fighting back that much harder, so he and Alberto run away to the one place where nobody of their kind will go looking for them: The nearby human city of Portorosso. This is where we meet our spunky misfit female lead (Giulia, voiced by Emma Berman) and our blowhard bully antagonist (Ercole, voiced by Saverio Raimondo).
(Side note: The town was apparently named in deliberate homage to Porco Rosso, and the influences of Hayao Miyazaki are undeniable here.)
Thus we have a literal fish-out-of-water story in which our leads come of age while trying to blend in and keep their identities secret. And predictably, three becomes a crowd as Alberto gets to be jealous of how close Luca and Giulia are becoming. But then a funny thing happens: Alberto starts trying to control Luca, insisting that he knows what’s best for his friend, exactly as Luca’s parents tried to do previously. Neat touch.
Still, the story is woefully thin without much in the way of anything particularly novel or compelling. The filmmakers attempt to make up for this in style, with gorgeous animation, charming character designs, lush dream sequences, and a heavily Italian soundtrack. Director Enrico Casarosa (here making his feature debut) has stated that the film was a “deeply personal story” inspired by his own childhood, and that comes through loud and clear. Every single frame of this film is drenched with nostalgia — it really does feel like the entire movie was written and produced by some young kid growing up in a small Italian town.
To wit: It speaks volumes that the main antagonist of the film is the preening local bully. Though our characters are constantly in danger of being found out and hunted down, the film is primarily concerned with winning a local triathlon. (It’s a long story that I won’t get into here.) For better or worse, this was deliberately made to be a relaxed and low-key movie. And anyway, these are exactly the kind of petty stakes that seem so much bigger when you’re a kid.
Speaking of which, a lot of ink has already been spilled about how this is low-key an LGBTQ-themed movie, with tongue-in-cheek comparisons to Call Me By Your Name. And of course it couldn’t possibly be a coincidence that the film involves merpeople, long an iconic symbol of the trans community. Sorry, but I’m not seeing it. Maybe I’m just speaking from my own experience, but if anyone didn’t have a closely platonic friendship like Luca and Alberto do here, I have to wonder what kind of childhood they had.
I know this is going to be a short review, but there’s really nothing more to this 100-minute movie but charm and heart. And for a Pixar film, that’s somehow enough. In fact, the bare-bones, stone-simple nature of the story leaves a lot more room for the raw emotion of these sympathetic characters and the endearing nostalgia of the filmmakers. Sincerity goes a long way, and though the themes here may be hackneyed and threadbare, there’s no doubt whatsoever that the filmmakers mean every word. Additionally, because the premise is so easy to pick up, the rules and mythology of this particular world are dispensed with economical speed, which helps the pacing considerably.
Luca is a feel-good movie, nothing more and nothing less. There’s more than enough heart and charm in here to make this more than hollow and empty spectacle, though the spectacle is admittedly gorgeous. Even so, and as unreasonable as it may be to expect that Pixar keep raising the bar with every film, I still expect more from them. I want to see some brains to go with the heart, and maybe some new themes or ideas explored in a fresh way.
All told, I think Luca ended up exactly where it should’ve been: On streaming with no premium sounds like exactly the right price and the right way to enjoy this.