What to Watch Verdict
'Luca' is the best film Pixar has released in a few years, and establishes director Enrico Casarosa as a formidable part of the studio's next phase.
The sweet and tender tone of the story
The happily low-stakes adventure driving the action
The Italian-infused soundtrack
The Aardman Animations-esque character design
Only being able to stream the film on Disney+ is a letdown
Some of the film's elements recall many other Pixar films
At heart, just about every Pixar film is about the value and necessity of friendship. From the rivalry-turned-bro-down of Sheriff Woody and Buzz Lightyear to the strange connection between Carl Fredricksen and an eight-year old Wilderness Explorer, Pixar films have explored friendship in vastly different ways through over 25 years of films. So in some ways, their latest original film Luca sets out to walk a very familiar path with its core relationships. But this film is surprisingly tender and sweet, an endearingly low-stakes story that's all the more real and keenly felt in spite of two of its lead characters being walking, talking, swimming sea monsters living off the coast of Italy.
Luca is the name of our lead, a shy but curious young sea monster voiced by Jacob Tremblay. Luca and his family are, like the “land monsters” they’re sometimes terrified of, Italian. His family's proud of living underwater. But Luca is in desperate need of a true friend and the opportunity to do anything new, and when he encounters the outwardly confident Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer of It) floating around in a deep-sea diving suit, he’s compelled to follow his new pal above the surface of the water. There, he’s surprised to learn that he, and any sea monster like him, transforms into a human...as long as he’s not wet. Luca and Alberto both share a dream of traveling beyond their underwater homes, and their growing friendship becomes the foundation for a summertime-set exploration of the human world.
Pixar films don’t often have world-ending stakes -- it’s not like Marvel movies where every human life is often at stake in one way or another. But something about the mission on which Luca and Alberto embark -- wherein they team up with a human girl to win the Portorosso Cup, a triathlon in the small village overlooking their watery home, in hopes of winning a Vespa -- is charming in exactly how minimalistic it feels. The story, credited to Jesse Andrews and Mike Jones, feels as small-stakes as that of the 2011 short La Luna, whose director Enrico Casarosa has now made his feature debut with this film. Luca isn’t about anything more than two friends testing the boundaries of their relationship and growing stronger in the process, which is both extremely relatable and a welcome shift from films that seem steeped in death, such as Soul and Onward.
But Luca doesn’t need to be about anything else. As a coming-of-age story, it stands out far more than some other recent Pixar entries, and has the distinct sense of having been inspired by Casarosa’s own childhood. Fans of La Luna may also recognize some similarities in the Aardman Animations-inspired character design -- Luca, when he’s human, looks much like a slightly older version of that short’s lead, and a gruff one-armed fisherman in the village of Portorosso has the same bushy-eyebrowed look of the father from the same short. Luca wears its cultural inspirations on its sleeve, but without ever feeling like a cut-rate ripoff. Some of the inspirations are obvious enough for anyone with a healthy enough awareness of animation -- Portorosso is no doubt named in homage to Hayao Miyazaki’s excellent animated film Porco Rosso (itself set in Italy), and a good deal of the human/sea monster connection recalls Miyazaki’s Ponyo.
The magic of this movie is that it transcends formula. The ingredients of a Pixar animated feature are all quite evident here, yet Luca is fresher, more vibrant, and more heartfelt than recent stories from the studio that either dredge up unnecessary sequels to excellent early films in the studio’s history or seem to be marking off boxes from a checklist. And unlike Soul, a heady entry that failed to effectively grapple with the race of its lead character, Luca is distinctly a film the whole family can enjoy, with a greater emphasis on the younger set.
In the early advertisements, much was made online about how the relationship between Luca and Alberto was reminiscent of a gay romance such as Call Me By Your Name. (This film’s lead sharing a first name with the director of that romance only helped the connections.) Though Casarosa has been quick to clarify that the friendship is intended to be platonic, it’s equally easy to see subtextual allusions to the way each of them needs the other being deeper and more profound than simple friends. The same goes for a key moment near the end when a local bully decries Luca and Alberto, simply for being different. On the surface, that comment is simply about Luca and Alberto being sea monsters. But if you’re looking for something beneath the surface, it’s there in the film, not just the marketing.
Romantic or not, Luca is a lovely ode to the power of friendship. Luca and Alberto do fit the mismatched-buddy archetype now standard in Pixar’s films, but they break out of those same molds thanks not only to the great voice work from both Tremblay and Grazer, but because the script and direction treat them as truly three-dimensionally emotional characters. Luca is, putting it simply, the best film Pixar Animation Studios has made since Coco, if not surpassing that one as well. It’s a genuine shame that such a beautifully animated and richly emotional film won’t be available to see on the big screen. The good news is that it’s going straight to Disney+ without a premium upcharge. But frankly? Luca would be worth the upcharge. It’s a perfect summer story.
Josh Spiegel is a freelance cultural critic who has been published in Slashfilm, SyFy, ScreenCrush, The A.V. Club, The Hollywood Reporter, The Washington Post and others. His favorite films include Singin’ in the Rain, The Rocketeer, Pinocchio and A Matter of Life and Death. His favorite TV shows include Ted Lasso, Only Murders in the Building, Deadwood and Lost. He lives in Phoenix with his wife, two sons and too many cats.