It is no secret that Pixar is known to be one of the best storytelling leaders
in animation. Most of their films push boundaries, explore themes that are
substantial to both children and adults, and are so unbelievably creative that
the release of a new Pixar film often feels like a cultural event. But every
once in a while, Pixar puts out a film that goes under the radar. Remember they
did a prequel to Monsters Inc.? Remember
If there is anything that goes against Luca, it is the film’s danger of slipping
under the radar, largely because this is one of Pixar’s simplest, most
straightforward stories to date. That being said, simple is never a bad thing.
Some of the best works of animation are simple, even plot less stories. Luca
plays out like a folk tale. The plot can be recited as a bedtime story within
fifteen minutes, but as a result, the film is able to create a laid-back,
charming atmosphere that seeps into the characters and locations.
On paper and in execution, Luca is first and foremost a coming-of-age movie,
centering around the titular character Luca (Jacob Tremblay), a reserved sea
monster boy who develops a friendship with Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), a much
more adventurous sea monster who has been to the surface, to the human world. As
the story casually moves along its familiar Act 1, which features your typical
overprotective parent characters (Maya Rudolph and Jim Gaffigan) and a cliché “I
want more” motivation, Luca’s eyes are opened to a whole new world, where
anything is possible, and he feels free to go anywhere he wants to go.
Here, in the first fifteen minutes of the film, the script does explore some
very familiar territory – both Luca and Alberto’s curiosity of the human world
largely stems from them collecting trinkets from the human world, in the same
vein as Ariel from The Little Mermaid. Meanwhile, Alberto’s hideout bears a
strange resemblance to Aladdin’s, both in the animated version and the
live-action remake. Certainly, Luca tries its best to stand out during its first
act, and it’s just barely held together by this newfound friendship and our
curiosity as to how it will be tested later on.
Once Luca and Alberto officially go to land, to the village of Portorosso – a
cute nod to Hayao Miyazaki’s Porco Rosso – and we meet the character of Giulia
(Emma Berman) and learn about a race held every year in the village, things
start to fall in place and build narrative momentum.
Luca is terrific because the stakes aren't earth shattering. Sure, there’s a
general plot that helps the story progress. Sure, there’s a bully antagonist
character. However, the plot itself is always in the backseat – the film
prioritizes spending time with Luca and Alberto and giving them room to grow.
Everyone else is there to prop up or test this friendship, from Giulia to her
amazing one-armed father to Luca’s parents.
Scattered across the film like small vignettes are visions and dreams that Luca
would have, and they feature stunning visuals that add a fantastical element
into the real world. It’s a beautiful combination of realism and dreamlike
escapism. Director Enrico Casarosa has spoken about the film’s inspirations
largely being drawn from Federico Fellini and Miyazaki’s animation, and if you
look closely, the homage's are there. Luca is if Casarosa attempted a combination
of Fellini’s La Strada with Miyazaki’s Kiki’s Delivery Service.
For once in… perhaps ever… Pixar has made an animated film that favors character
over plot and world-building. What starts off as a laid-back, charming adventure
in the first half soon becomes an intimate, deeply personal story of growth in
the second half. A few character decisions near the end of the second act and in
the climax certainly caught me by surprise, tugging my heartstrings in all the
right ways. By the time Luca ends, you will feel that rush of nostalgia, like
that one trip you made with your friends or family that you fondly look back on.
Led by stellar voice-acting and an endless amount of charm and youthful spirit,
Luca is Pixar’s simplest movie to date, but it’s simple done right. It may not
have the deepest themes or most substantial or topical messages to explore, but
not every movie, let alone an animated movie, needs to bear that responsibility.
The humor is light and innocent, the animation and imagery are rich with colors
and culture, and the story offers a few emotional surprises that may just catch
you off guard.
Sometimes all you need is a small-scale story with proper low stakes and lovable
characters. Sometimes comfort food is the best food because it reminds you of
your childhood. It reminds you of home. Luca is Pixar comfort food.