Luca (PG) ★★½

Review Date: June 18th, 2021

In the arena of American animated films, Pixar represents the Gold Standard and it has been thus since the arrival of Toy Story in 1995. Over that span of more than 25 years, the animation studio has been responsible for very few duds so, when one comes along, it represents a noteworthy cause for disappointment. Luca, although by no means a bad movie, is one of those rare Pixar whiffs. It's generic and ordinary and, although it contains sufficient material to engage children, its ability to hold the attention of older viewers is less sure. A transparent allegory about racial tolerance, Luca shamelessly pilfers from the likes of The Little Mermaid and Shrek in telling a threadbare story about three young friends who learn to appreciate one another in spite of (or because of) their differences. The message is laudable and Luca's heart is in the right place but its sledgehammer tactics make parts of the movie feel more like a homily than summer entertainment.

One could argue that it's becoming increasingly difficult to find movies that don't have a political context or a social conscience and subtlety isn't necessarily the best approach when trying to reach children. The problem with Luca is that it feels clunky and obvious. Disney has always done a good job of including messages in its animated films and attempts to emphasize inclusivity in animation can be handled with more grace (as in the aforementioned Shrek, which was made by Dreamworks).

The movie starts out so much like The Little Mermaid that I half-expected Flounder to swim by. Luca (Jacob Tremblay) is a so-called "sea monster" (in a Disney-fied sense, meaning that he looks a little weird but is cute enough that kids wouldn't mind cuddling up with a plushie modeled after him) who is repeatedly told by his overprotective mother (Maya Rudolph) and oft-distracted father (Jim Gaffigan) to steer clear of the surface. But curiosity eventually gets the best of him and, with the encouragement of the local rebel, Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), Luca breaks above the waterline and, stepping onto a beach, finds himself magically changed into the simulacrum of a 13-year-old boy. He can pass for human as long as he stays dry. When touched by water (such as when it rains), his true nature bleeds through.

Freed from the confines of their underwater habitat, Luca and Alberto explore the delights to be found in the town of Portorosso, set on the Italian Riviera. During their journey, they are befriended by a local girl, Giulia (Emma Berman), and run afoul of Portorosso's most notorious bully, Ercole Visconti (Saverino Raimondo). Giulia encourages the undercover sea monsters to enter the Portorosso Cup race, the town's annual "big event," and thereby challenge the supremacy of Ercole, who is a repeat winner. Meanwhile, Luca's parents, having guessed where their son has gone, set out in pursuit.

Luca's setting, inspired by director Enrico Casarosa's childhood in Genoa, does sufficient world-building to bring to life the small seaside town during the 1950s or 1960s. (It is less successful in fleshing out the underwater community of the sea monsters.) In keeping with Pixar's stated desire to expand the locations of its movies into as many diverse geographic (and sometimes fantastical) areas as possible, Luca does a good job opening a new frontier. It's unfortunate, however, that the story can't match the ambience or the visuals.

As is commonplace with Pixar films, the animation is consistently strong and sometimes gorgeous. Several of the animators visited the Italian Riviera to acquaint themselves with the people and locations and Casarosa's intimate knowledge of the setting provided additional bolstering. Unlike many recent Disney/Pixar offerings, Luca arrives without the backing of star power. The best-known names in the cast are Jacob Tremblay, Maya Rudolph, Jim Gaffigan, and Sacha Baron Cohen. (The last three have small, supporting roles.) Many of the voices are provided by relative unknowns. This is clearly an instance when the filmmakers didn't want to trade on the contributions of an A-list actor to boost the film's visibility.

Casarosa has admitted that much of Luca's story is semi-autobiographical. Others have pointed out that the "in the closet" aspect of the sea monsters' on-land existence reflects the experiences of those hiding their sexuality for fear of a societal backlash. Nevertheless, these aspects, which make for interesting behind-the-scenes fodder, don't help the thinness of the narrative. Luca picks up the Pixar baton from Soul and stumbles with it. Considering its ease of access (released directly to Disney+ with no surcharge), it's worth watching, especially for children. But in the overall Pixar catalog, it's hard to imagine this being more than a dimly-remembered curiosity.

© 2021 James Berardinelli