Directed by Enrico Casarosa
Creating a professional animated film during 2020’s quarantine is an unprecedented task. The idea of working on a project of this scale from home alongside 63 animators, individual voice actors, and communicating through emails and Zoom is a difficult one to grasp. Regardless, Pixar’s Luca is the product of said experience, given no release in theaters and only available through Disney’s streaming service, Disney+. Despite its bleak circumstances, Luca is a surprisingly revitalizing film that diverges from Pixar’s usual works and instead embraces its simple theme of seeking acceptance—both from one’s family, but also of one’s own identity and their relationship with the society they live in.
In short, Luca is a coming-of-age story that follows a young sea creature named Luca as he branches out from his family. When on land, Luca can take on a human form, allowing him to pursue both his curiosity of the human world and the friendship of Alberto, a sea creature who is a self-proclaimed expert on humanity. The simple goal of obtaining a Vespa, a moped, drives the two boys to join forces with the human girl Giulia to beat Ercole, who serves as the main antagonist, in the Portorosso Cup Triathlon. All the while, Luca must avoid being taken back home by his parents and avoid being exposed by the townspeople as a sea monster.
Pixar’s animators and artists capture a vividly bright summer scene of iridescent scales, corals, and kelp fields. The film is set in Italy, made obvious from not only the Italian words chipped in by the humans in Portorosso, but through the architecture and soundtrack. Rich strings and accordions accompany scenes in powerfully effortless fashion. The music not only sets the location in a gentle way but the period as well, which appears to be the late 50s to early 60s. The sheer amount of texture makes the film’s style akin to a storybook, which has been carefully balanced between realism and the expressive touch of an artist. And unlike many films in Disney’s and Pixar’s line-up, the introduction of the protagonist is not done through narration, but through his duties and way of life. Nothing else quite concisely explains the sea creatures’ view of the surface than the first exchange between Luca and Alberto.
When Luca first experiences the surface, he is thrown into the pebbly shore in a panic. Amused, Alberto states, “First time?” To this, Luca responds, “Of course it is; I’m a good kid!” Through the implications of Luca’s words, in a mere ten minutes Luca establishes the views of the protagonist’s family, and in another five they offer the motivations and personalities of the main characters, Luca and Alberto. In this way, the audience is treated with respect and is given creative freedom on ideas about this world, encouraging imagination not only after the film’s runtime but even during its first scenes. This places the audience’s expectations in a fascinatingly unknown place and is the film’s greatest asset in making the story engaging.
The most captivating part of the film is its emphasis on acceptance. Not only does Luca strive to be accepted by his family, but by Giulia and her father, Massimo, for different reasons. Luca wants to be accepted by his mother for his love of the surface, but also to be accepted by the surface as a sea monster so that he does not have to live in fear. It is no mistake that this compelling desire is often said to parallel the struggles LGBT+ youth face, but this story is clearly one that can be relatable to first-generation college students, refugees, and people with disabilities. By the end, it feels as if Luca and Alberto have gained a wealth of friendships and found new people to call family. Luca’s grandmother Paguro captures this idea perfectly in her last line, “Some people, they'll never accept him, but some will, and he seems to know how to find the good ones,” extending Luca’s experiences into one that mirrors the audience.
A common complaint of Luca is its lack of drive and complexity compared to Pixar’s other films. In other works from their line-up, every scene has a clear purpose and every character detail is meant to serve the plot. In fact, Pixar has changed directors on films in the past for this reason, a prime example being Chris Sanders, director of Lilo and Stitch, being removed from the project Bolt. Extra details such as Luca’s interest in astronomy and school, the existence of Massimo and Giulia’s cat, Machiavelli, and Luca’s grandmother’s short stories about the surface, truly serve no purpose other than to make the world feel more immersive. In this way, the film indeed sticks out as a Pixar movie that feels more like a call to Studio Ghibli's Ponyo and Porco Rosso rather than a carefully formulated plot designed to make the audience cry. A much more valid complaint is Luca falling into the pitfall most Pixar’s films fall under—a contrived splitting of the main characters before the finale. The unrealistic and immature conflict before the finale in Luca is made more bearable by the youth of its characters, but frustrating nevertheless. Thankfully, the film’s end is strong, if a little rushed, due to all of the characters’ development getting just enough of a satisfying conclusion.
Luca is not without its flaws and is not strictly what one comes to associate with Pixar. Despite this, it feels as if Pixar needed this break in their expectations. Not every Pixar film needs to be a nostalgic masterpiece that forces you to undergo a deeply emotional experience. It is refreshingly unambitious, entertaining without feeling unnatural.
There are no scenes where you are taken out of the immersion and think, “Oh, this is the scene that’s meant to be the tear-jerker.” If an analogy could be humored, Luca feels like the flashback-inducing and nostalgic ratatouille served to the food critic, Ego, in Ratatouille. After so many complex—some incredible, some bad—dishes, the simplicity and care put into Luca is exactly what makes it such a genuine and sincere film. As a result, Luca is well worth the time and a testament to what can be created even during times of unbelievable difficulty.
- Sarah Wagner
University of California, Davis