When it comes to Pixar movies, there are only two possible outcomes when the credits roll: either the audience is filled with joy and happiness after witnessing a delightful adventure, or they’re left to pick up the pieces after an emotional rollercoaster shattered their heart.
While the latter tend to leave a more resonant impact on their audiences – like how Pete Docter’s “Soul” had viewers contemplating the meaning of life – the lighthearted joyrides are equally important. After a few consecutive heavy-hitters from the studio, “Luca” arrives as a breath of fresh air, taking the historic animation house back to its roots with a story of friendship and acceptance.
Beneath the waves of the beautiful Italian Riviera lies a world humans have been taught to fear – a world filled with sea monsters. Only these “monsters” aren’t exactly the sink-your-ship or eat-you-alive kind of creatures. Instead, they’re just normal, everyday people with a few extra scales and tentacles. In reality, they’re more scared of the humans than the people are of them. This fear of the surface means that hardly any of the sea monsters know about their hidden ability: when they leave the water, they’re able to shed their scaly appearance and transform into a human body.
Luca (Jacob Tremblay) has always dreamed of the surface world, but his protective parents (Maya Rudolph, Jim Gaffigan) have made sure to instill a healthy enough level of fear in their son to keep him from ever acting on his dreams. But when Luca crosses paths with the rebellious young sea monster Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), the surface doesn’t seem so scary. After plenty of adventures sneaking onto the shore, Alberto can blend in with the best of the surface-dwellers, but bringing Luca up to speed will take some serious work.
With the support of his new best friend, Luca sets off to see what life on the surface is all about in the seaside town of Portorosso – from ice cream to bike rides and everything in between.
When looking at “Luca” beside other Pixar films, the latest animated installment may look a bit thin. It isn’t a sequel, there’s no overly-complex plot or deep lore to understand, and it’s only a brief 95 minutes. Compared to the recent crop of films, it looks and feels totally different.
While some may see that as a negative, in reality, it’s a return to what made Pixar so great in the first place. This is not a slight to the complexity of “Soul,” the world building of “Onward,” or the interconnectivity of Pixar sequels, but this studio was built on quick, light adventures capable of delivering endless smiles. “Luca’s” simplicity is its biggest strength, as the friendship between Luca, Alberto and their new pal Giula (Emma Berman) takes centerstage.
As is the case with most onscreen trifectas, jealousy brews when two members of the crew becoming closer than the third, and even “Luca” can’t escape that trope. However, writers Jesse Andrews and Mike Jones present this drama in a way that justifies everyone character’s point of view, rather than pinning one as being in the wrong. As a result, the divide between friends actually works to bring audiences closer to the characters as they root for reconciliation.
Beyond the story of friendship, “Luca” also works as a tale of acceptance and identity. Forced to hide their true scales and tails under their human facades, Luca and Alberto live life hoping no one discovers their secret. Hitting streamers in the middle of Pride month, it’s hard not to read into this story of self-acceptance and see it as an allegory for members of the LGBTQ+ community who feel they too must hide their true selves. While director Enrico Casarosa has embraced the film as a vessel for outsiders, he has explicitly shared that Luca and Alberto are just friends, despite the film’s striking similarities to another more sensual cinematic male “friendship” along the Italian coast.
At this point when talking about Pixar films, it feels silly to even feel the need to bring up the most integral aspect of the studio: its animation. We’ve been so spoiled by the wonders and beauty of its films, and “Luca” is no exception. The brilliant colors both on the surface and beneath it are striking, and the character designs present an atypical and more whimsical approach than the studio’s usual style. Musically speaking, Dan Romer delivers a brilliant score that perfectly captures the pleasure, emotion and adventure on screen, keeping Pixar’s streak of hits alive and well.
With two heavy films preceding it, “Luca” brings a lighthearted change of pace to the Pixar universe, delivering heartwarming highs nonstop joy.
Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Raleigh, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.