When you don’t factor in the plethora of inferior sequels that have been produced, Luca is one of Pixar’s simplest and most unassuming films in years — and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. The film thrives on being a visual feast with a warm message for all ages, so much so that its unoriginal storyline doesn’t feel that big of a problem. It’s a relaxed, easy-going film that doesn’t feel the innate Pixar pressure of having to rival the studio’s gold standards, a feat that even the most experienced animators don’t always reckon with. In giving itself permission to not be a masterpiece, its celebration of Italian culture and its themes of friendship and marginalization feel all the more earned, as well.
Just off the coast of the fictional town of Portorosso along the Italian Riviera, there lives a oft-rumored and mythologized community of sea monsters, who have the ability to assume a human appearance when on dry land. Though his overbearing parents forbid him to do so, one of these creatures, the adamant, goatfish-herding Luca Paguro (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) is overwhelmed by his fascination with human life and soon travels to the surface with his newfound friend and fellow aquatic being, Alberto Scorfano (Jack Dylan Grazer). There, the fast pace of days in Portorosso sweep them out of their fins and off their feet as they befriend the locals, taste the local cuisine, and act on their shared desire for a Vespa in a summer that ultimately changes their lives.
For anyone who has had a Disney-centric childhood, I would apologize for how familiar that kind of premise sounds, but the fact of the matter is that Luca, though modestly so, does just about anything it can to remind the viewer that what Pixar may sometimes lack in enthralling novelty, the studio more than makes up for in animated splendor. And in this case, director Enrico Casarosa, having previously helmed the short La Luna (2012), pays loving tribute to his childhood experiences in Genoa with his stunning realization of a town not unlike the one he grew up in. With its gloriously rendered cobblestone streets, pastel-lined buildings, and quirky residents, Portorosso is matched in vibrant beauty only by the undersea landscape resting in front of it and the rolling hills that stand behind it. At times, one would think Casarosa is channeling Bob Ross as much as Federico Fellini and Hayao Miyazaki, two influences he discusses in an interview with Empire. His attention to detail is palpable, and it all lays the groundwork for a film that has a legitimate case for the title of Pixar’s most well-intentioned film.
There is a sweet-natured, innocent lack of cynicism to the characters and various scenarios of Luca, even if some of them often feel more like plot points that don’t serve a greater purpose. Its easy, undemanding viewing with a simple coming-of-age sense of nostalgia that allows its simple acceptance of outsiders, and the likeable friendship at its core, to shine. Though Pixar’s admirable attempts to shine lights on different cultures may beg the question as to why two American boys with slightly annoying voices are voicing Italian characters, Tremblay and Grazer nevertheless play off one another very well, providing the perfect to one another as Luca and Alberto each discover a kindred spirit that they have both longed for their entire lives. Their friendship, along with the connection they make with local girl Giulia (Emma Berman), dominates the film and assures the viewer of how easy acceptance can be when effort is put in.
With the rest of Portorosso fearful of sea monsters, and Luca and Alberto risking the exposure of their identities with even the slightest touch of water, the film can be interpreted as a metaphor for anyone who has ever felt on the outs for the same reasons. Luca does not attempt to dive as deep as its two protagonists are able to when it comes to its exploration of such a theme, but the result is a film that will appeal to both the racially-defined struggles of the past year and the current celebration of LGBTQ+ culture this month has brought. That it has been released in both the heart of Pride Month and on the eve of Juneteenth should definitely be seen as a pure coincidence (there’s no pandering in this film), but it’s the kind of coincidence that doesn’t have any drawbacks to it. Now, none of this is to say that the relationship between the two boys makes Luca Pixar’s first gay love story. Given the studio’s progressive streak, no one would blame you for wanting to read the film in this way, and the Call Me By Your Name vibes of the Italian landscape is already leading many to try, but the power of unwavering friendship is what is ultimate evinced by the film’s conclusion.
Said conclusion comes a little too easily and is tied up a little too prettily in a bow. It feels slightly unearned, especially since what precedes it has been done before and in much better fashions. Pixar climaxes have often made or broken the film; a lot of the time, they’re the part of these movies we remember most. Luca will likely never reach the “classic” status of some of the studio’s best, but there’s no harm in dialing things back. Where Luca succeeds where others don’t is in how it simply tries to be the best movie it can be rather than trying to be “a Pixar movie”. That it feels uncharacteristic in so many ways makes it all the more enjoyable. Plus, if there’s a movie that will have you fully ready to embrace the summer season (the days are now getting longer, after all), it’s this one.