Pixar has rarely ever made a bad movie. Even at its worst (see “The Good Dinosaur” and “Cars 2”) it still manages to create fun, relatively high-quality entertainment that keeps the rest of the animation studios on their toes. Even decades after “Toy Story” the studio keeps upping its own game especially with my personal favorite movie of 2020, “Soul”. However, their latest film “Luca” feels like a small step backwards to me while once again proving that even at their worst Pixar is a huge cut above the rest. Set on the Italian Riviera in the 50s and 60s, “Luca” focuses on the titular character (voiced by Jacob Tremblay), a young sea monster who follows his new friend Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer) onto land for the first time where they transform into human versions of themselves and befriend a young girl named Giulia (Emma Berman) and agree to help her win her villages annual race. However, they also find the humans are frightened of sea monsters and thus have to keep their true forms hidden. “Luca” maintains Pixar’s penitent for charm and relevant underlying theming, but overall feels like one of the studio’s more basic and straightforward offerings where it could have been so much more.
It’s important to acknowledge that “Luca” is not a bad movie by any definition. The animation is rather unique to Pixar giving the characters this interesting Claymation-like aesthetic and bringing to life well defined worlds both under the water and in the Italian village where it is set. Visually it’s stunning as you would expect from a Pixar feature and the voice work from the likes of Jacob Tremblay, Jack Dylan Grazer, Emma Berman, Saverio Raimondo, Maya Rudolph, Marco Barricelli, Jim Gaffigan and others is also top notch. It’s also worth noting that this film is a beautiful tribute to Italy and its culture, especially in the 50s and 60s, and serves as a great introduction to director Enrico Casarosa, himself of Italian descent who previously worked as a story artist on numerous Pixar projects. With all that said it sounds like “Luca” would have the makings of a perfect Pixar offering right? Well, yes, until you consider the story, writing and personality of the movie which for me is where its weaknesses truly lie.
“Luca’s” story isn’t necessarily bad, especially by animated film standards. It skips out on a lot of the more generic and pandering elements a lot of studios settle for and still has plenty of heart with a narrative that focuses on the bonds of friendship and charting your own path in a world where you might not be excepted. Some have even seen Luca and Alberto’s struggle with their true identities as sea monsters as an allegory for sexual identity and I think that’s great and adds a neat layer of depth to the story, but I feel like Pixar could have and should have leaned a little more into this idea. Outside of a few direct examples of their “coming out” to the people it’s hidden beneath a more basic story of Luca becoming enamored with the human world and the trio of Luca, Alberto and Giulia trying to defeat a rather one-note villain named Ercole, in my opinion one of the weakest and most poorly developed bad guys in the Pixar canon. I never felt like “Luca” was making any genuine attempt to buck convention or truly buy in to the deeper themes clearly present below the surface. If I’m being perfectly honest, I found it difficult to really invest in the film beyond a surface level even after a rewatch. The story felt pretty obvious and lacked a lot of surprises while also feeling surprisingly reserved in terms of emotional depth compared to past Pixar works.
And there may be a good reason for this. “Luca” is and will always be compared to and held to the standard of Pixar’s other movies which, as I previously stated, feel like they’re just getting better and better setting a high bar that makes more straight forward projects pale in comparison. While 2020s’ “Onward” also didn’t really redefine much of its genre it complimented its visuals with an engaging story that took some interesting turns and felt proud of going places other animated pictures rarely have. “Luca” is more predictable and while that doesn’t make it a bad movie it does make it inferior to past Pixar efforts. “Luca” is clearly proud of its Italian inspiration and continues Pixar’s tradition of lovable heroes and genuine character relationships, but it doesn’t wear its heart on its sleeve like a lot of other Pixar films do nor does it fully invest in the deeper, more original elements that could have made it another true cinematic classic of the era. It’s fine, but that’s really all I could say about it. It’s what I expect from Pixar in its simplest form which still makes for a good movie but doesn’t make for a standout picture that will be remembered above its superior predecessors like the “Toy Story” movies, “Soul”, “Coco”, “Wall-E”, “Inside Out”, “Up”, “Monsters Inc.”, “The Incredibles” or, hell, even the first a third “CARS” movies which I’m in a minority for appreciating.
I don’t want anyone thinking I hated this movie because i didn’t. It was perfectly fine, serviceable and fun in its own right. “Luca” is just feels like Pixar’s version of playing it safe. Even then it’s still a very good animated movie with beautiful visuals, a genuine investment in the culture it seeks to emulate, great voice work and a completely watchable story well above most animated features you’ll see nowadays. It hits all the basics you’d expect from a Pixar film, but otherwise it’s middle of the road for me. It has some great ideas and some powerful themes but all of that feels hidden beneath one of the more straight forward narratives Pixar has churned out. It’s a rich, well-developed world with lovable and fun characters who could have and should have been used more effectively to capture the deeper themes hidden beneath their journey of exploration, friendship and self-acceptance. A few years ago I feel like this movie would have gone over better for me but seeing how far Pixar has taken its storytelling just since 2015 alone and the lengths they’re willing to go to get to the core of the emotion and deeper ideas they dare to explore, “Luca” feels a bit to reserved for my taste and isn’t a Pixar movie I’ll go back to over others in the studio’s library anytime soon. That said though it still stands as an excellent animated film in many respects making it an experience I highly recommend at least one.