Luca (2021)

Prepare for an unforgettable trip.

Ah, it’s fine.

It’s fitting that Luca is partially set in the sea, seeing as Pixar is currently in the doldrums. Onward (2020) was a bit meh, and Soul (2020) was okay on first taste but not something I’ve ever felt a pressing need to revisit (YMMV as always — don’t @ me). Those two — three including Luca — were all affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, of course, and found a home on Disney+, but the received wisdom is that they would have gotten — and deserved — theatrical exhibition under normal circumstances.

Luca, however, feels like a good fit for what used to be direct-to-video. Historically, Pixar has gone the other way; back in the late ‘90s, Toy Story 2 was gonna be a “Return of Jafar” style priced-to-own affair until Pixar realized what they had on their hands. Luca, by comparison, puts me in mind of 2015’s The Good Dinosaur (and, looking at the release slate, almost everything after): the rare (but not as much as they used to be) underwhelming Pixar offering.

Something’s fishy in Portorosso.

So, Luca Paguro (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) is a curious 13-year-old kid with doting but distracted parents (Jim Gaffigan and Maya Rudolph) who gets an itch to find out what exists outside his cozy little community and goes off on an adventure with more rebellious kid Alberto Scorfano (Jack Dylan Grazer). Plot twist: what’s outside is the surface world because Luca and company are sea monsters living off the coast of Italy circa the late ‘50s — early ‘60s.

When they’re on dry land, sea monsters transform into humans, so Luca and Alberto inveigle themselves into the seaside village of Portorosso (“Red Port” but also a clear nod to Hayao Miyazaki’s Porco Rosso (1992), the Japanese animation legend being a clear influence here). Fun culture clashes and adventures ensue, culminating in the two teaming up with local girl Giulia Marcovaldo (Emma Berman) to win a resident triathlon against town bully Ercole Visconti (Saverio Raimondo).

Life on the surface is sweet.

There’s more to it — Alberto’s parental abandonment, Giulia’s feminist drive, the fetishization of Vespa scooters, etc., etc. — but it all feels a bit scattershot, as though various elements, conflicts, and bits of ephemera have been stapled onto a pretty standard coming of age plot. It’s a bit The Little Mermaid (1989), a bit Finding Nemo (2003) — Luca’s parents come a-looking for him in the human world — a bit Monsters Inc. (2001) — the sea monsters the villagers of Portorosso fear are actually nice — and so on. But it doesn’t feel like its own thing.

I think the intent is there. I talked about the importance of specificity in my review of In the Heights recently, and Luca director Enrico Casarosa, who gave us the delightful Pixar short subject La Luna in 2011, is on record as saying the story is deeply personal and rooted in his childhood in Genoa and his relationship with his best friend. The sequences in Portorosso certainly look wonderful, with faint nostalgic haze and lots of warm Mediterranean colors, and the character designs are in an intriguing middle ground between Ghibli and European comics. The underwater sequences don’t work as well; the sea monster culture and environment don’t really make sense even with the generous margins allowed for children’s cinema, and on a technical level fall well short of what was previously achieved in Finding Nemo and 2016’s Finding Dory. But the specifics of Casarosa’s experiences — if you need filmic touchstones, you can go straight to Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini or, even better, Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso (1988) — don’t make up for the feeling we’ve been here before, and in more confident hands.

This pesto is the besto!

I will say there’s a queer coming of age subtext to Luca and Alberto’s relationship that is there if you want it — a few of the Twitterati have made pointed comparisons to Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name (2017), and if you have that in mind, it’s pretty hard to ignore. There was also a darn obvious queer subtext to Raya and the Last Dragon (2021), too, which makes me wonder if Disney isn’t edging ever closer to having some overt queer representation in their animated offerings. I’d hope so, but I can already imagine the discourse around such a move, and it’s exhausting.

But back to the matter at hand, which is Luca: it’s a perfectly serviceable animated family adventure that never quite coheres into something special. The problem with a production house like Pixar is that they’ve set their own bar ridiculously high, and “fine” feels like a slap in the face when the usual adjective is “amazing.” But it’s fine to be fine, really.

3 / 5 – Good

Reviewed by Travis Johnson

Luca is released through Disney Australia