Director: Enrico Casarosa
Pixar have tackled some weighty concepts in its time: the pains of dealing with emotions in Inside Out, bereavement and acceptance in Up, and the bitter-sweet tragedy of seeing our children grow up in Toy Story 3. While Luca, their latest movie, seems a relatively simpler tale on the surface, surface looks are one of the tricky issues it takes on.
Like Soul before it, Luca debuts directly on the streaming service Disney+. Both were of course destined for cinemas but lockdown had other ideas, and unlike other recent major Disney movies that got steered straight onto Disney and were available for an additional fee, Luca is “free” to all Disney+ subscribers from day one. This is excellent news, as not only is this movie one that is suitable for everyone, but it’s the perfect film to kick off what we can only hope will be a sunny and bright summer.
Luca is a sea monster. More accurately he is a young boy who happens to be a sea-dwelling creature and who yearns to know what the surface world is like despite warnings of extreme danger from his parents. Sound familiar? Well, yes there is more than a whiff of The Little Mermaid here, but for the most part this film manages to avoid direct comparison even if the similarities hang over it sometimes too obviously along with hints of Pinocchio and Beauty and the Beast. Luca and his species (only ever referred to as “sea monsters”) have the involuntary magical ability to physically turn into human form once they are out of the water and dry. The moment they become wet, they change back (even partially) and this concept is well used throughout to generate both laughs and suspense.
Timid Luca finds himself on dry land and befriended by fellow sea monster Alberto who has taken up residence on the surface. Becoming firm friends instantly, Luca and Alberto are forced to enter the small Italian fishing village of Portorosso when Luca’s distraught parents come looking for him. Here they discover that humans are fish-killers and monster-haters, and they must hide their real identities from everyone including their new friend Giulia, whose only wish is to win the annual Portorosso Triathlon and beat town bully Ercole. When Luca and Alberto learn that the prize money could buy them the Vespa scooter that they dream of owning, a team is formed with Giulia and she slowly starts to open Luca’s eyes to the wonders of the surface world.
The plot is slight and the stakes feel quite low for a Pixar movie, but this is part of its overall charm. The initial setup of the underwater world is thinly sketched which leads to a slow start. However once Luca sets foot on land and meets Alberto, the film takes flight and its main purpose becomes clear. Luca is a film about friendship, and specifically those short-lived friendships that happen over summer holidays and which stay with you forever. This is where this film really wins, the relationship between Luca, Alberto and Giulia being beautifully crafted and utterly believable. In fact it’s these scenes that are the highlight of the film, with sea monster shenanigans feeling almost incidental.
This is a Pixar film and so obviously it is animated wonderfully and looks gorgeous. The voice cast are perfect, especially Jacob Tremblay as Luca, Jack Dylan Grazer as Alberto and Emma Berman as the hyperactive Giulia. Special mention must also go to Saverio Raimondo as the thoroughly hateable bully Ercole and a fun cameo from Sacha Baron Cohen as Uncle Ugo, a bizarre deep-sea monster (hang on to the end of the credits for more of him). The gorgeous score by Dan Romer perfectly evokes a hot Italian summer in the late 50s/early 60s and underpins the action and emotion perfectly.
This is admittedly not top tier Pixar and feels a little undercooked in places. However it still sits quite high in the rankings. With messages of acceptance no matter what you look like, and the frustrations of not quite feeling like you fit in, Luca has a heart and noble intentions, but while it may bring a slight lump to the throat, it does not have the emotional gut punch that was delivered by the likes of Toy Story 3, Coco or Wall-E. But just like those halcyon summer days that many of us were lucky enough to experience as children, Luca is still heart-warming and lingers in the memory.
Streaming on Disney+ now