Disney and Pixar have a long track record of making movies about fish out of water characters. You know the story, a shy or sheltered child who longs to explore meets another child who is out in the world and shows them things they could never imagine until they have a falling out, only to reconcile and have a happy ending.
Luca, the latest film from Pixar, is very much a film that, in the broad strokes, you’ve seen before. In the details though, you are going to find that Pixar warmth, charm, and heart.
Luca begins, as you do, with a sea monster stealing from a boat. Luca (Jacob Tremblay) is not that sea monster, but he is a sea monster. Growing up on the ocean floor, herding goatfish and wishing there were more to life than just hiding from the boats that float above him, boats carrying terrifying “land monsters” that hunt and kill merfolk such as he.
One day, while minding his flock, he encounters Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), another young sea monster who makes his home on land. Despite his mother’s warnings and worry, Luca starts to spend more and more time out of the sea, until eventually he feels compelled to run away from home to the nearby human town. With Alberto, they meet Giulia (Emma Berman) and her father Massimo (Marco Barricelli), who take them in. The town itself has a deep-seated fear of sea monsters and an annual triathlon (traditional Italian triathlon of biking, swimming, and pasta eating) with a prize big enough for the boys to buy their ultimate symbol of personal freedom: a Vespa.
As you’re starting to become aware, a lot of this film sounds entirely familiar. The two sea monsters hiding in the human world, befriending the other oddball in town, facing a bully and learning the true power of friendship. The details I mentioned before are what set this one apart. Director Enrico Casarosa drew inspiration from his own childhood in Genoa, including his best friend, Alberto. In addition to drawing on the period-specific 1950s details, Luca ends up with a personal feeling that can’t be dismissed.
Then, of course, there is how the film looks; Pixar seems to outdo themselves with every outing, and Luca is no different. Each of the characters feels unique and alive, and in the case of the merfolk, they feel distinct in both their human and aquatic guises. I could tell you about the number of individual scales Luca has in his aquatic form, but what’s more interesting to me is the overall design which at times feels like a stop motion project. Guilia feels almost like a character out of an Aardman or Laika film with her triangular everything, which is meant entirely as a compliment.
I feel like Luca is destined to be known in the world at large as a “mid-tier” Pixar film. It doesn’t have the hype or the star power that the Toy Story movies have, but it does have the heart that the studio is known for. Besides that, we all need to remember that mid-tier Pixar is still a cut above most of the rest.
Luca premieres on Disney+ on Friday, June 18th 2021.
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