Since its first feature film, 1995’s Toy Story, Pixar has been unafraid to tell stories that others would not or, at the least, could not do as well. Their latest, Luca, is a play on similar stories that have come before, but with a unique twist that shows the animation studio is still out there taking risks after 25 years of being on top.
Luca (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) is a young “sea monster” (closer to a mermaid than anything else) who is an undersea shepherd living off the coast of Italy under the strict thumb of his parents, Daniela (Maya Rudolph) and Lorenzo (Jim Gaffigan). He has a curiosity about life above the surface, especially after finding various items that have fallen into the ocean, but he’s warned by his parents to always be wary of “land monsters.”
He gets pulled above water after meeting Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), a fellow sea monster who actually lives on land most of the time, on a small island just off the coast. Buoyed by the fact that they turn into humans outside of water and tempted by the lure of a Vespa motor scooter, the duo make their way to the town of Portorosso. There, they soon join forces with the spunky Giulia (Emma Berman), leading to a series of escapades.
Directed by Enrico Casarosa and written by Jesse Andrews and Mike Jones, the film is unusually light on the type of emotional story that Pixar usually delivers. That’s because, other than the risk of Luca and Alberto being revealed as sea monsters, the stakes of the film are not that high. They try to insert different issues – Luca wanting to go to school, Alberto being an orphan, Giulia being shuttled between two parents – but none of them really connects.
There is a good amount of fun to be had in the film, thanks to some interesting supporting characters, including the pompous Giacomo (Giacomo Gianniotti) and a sullen cat owned by Giulia’s father, Massimo (Marco Barricelli). But the sense of adventure is just never there, as the filmmakers fail to make the goals of the three kids as important to the audience as they are to the characters.
In fact, the film plays as more of an homage to film history than a genuine attempt to entertain modern-day kids. It’s set in the 1950s for seemingly no other reason than to involve the Vespa, driving home the point with a poster of Roman Holiday starring Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn, which prominently featured the scooter. It also has posters for the Italian film La Strada and The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and the town’s name bears a close resemblance to Porco Rosso, a Studio Ghibli film set in Italy. And, of course, a sea creature wanting to see what life is like on land has been told before in Disney’s The Little Mermaid.
Tremblay (Room, Wonder) and Grazer (Shazam!, It) are two prominent up-and-coming young actors, so it’s not difficult to understand why they were cast as the leads. Rudolph has become the go-to voiceover maternal figure of late, playing that role in Big Hero 6, The Mitchells vs. the Machines, and here, among others. Most of the roles are filled by actual Italian actors, lending at least an air of authenticity to the film.
Animation fans have come to expect greatness from Pixar every time they release a film, and while Luca is far from a failure, there’s nothing especially memorable about it, either. It’s great that the studio is trying something different instead of relying on its go-to properties, but in this instance, the impact just isn’t there.
Luca is streaming now on Disney+.