Review: Far from Pixar's best, 'Luca' still delivers visual splendor
Courtesy of Pixar/Disney+
A remarkable and gorgeous tale of friendship and identity set in the glistening Italian countryside, Pixar’s “Luca” sticks the landing even if the overall presentation is far from the studio's best achievements. With the artistic and creative highs of “Inside Out,” “The Incredibles” and “Wall-E,” Pixar’s greatest competitor has always been itself and that won’t stop “Luca“ from swimming into homes
without much scrutiny or an additional “premier access” fee, just in time for summer. Helmed with the same panache brought to his other works, namely the short film “La Luna,” director Enrico Casarosa embraces the sun, a creamy gelato, and the plot’s simplicity in which two sea “monsters” discover their true selves among a community that wants nothing to do with them. (Even when a Pixar film is “low-tier,” they’re still going to tackle sensitive subjects. Nothing is off limits).
Inspired in equal parts and elements by “The Little Mermaid,” “Luca” is tender to the core and unafraid to reach for the stars as it follows two boys, Luca (Jacob Tremblay) and Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer) navigating life off the coast of the Italian Riviera. A brief overview details humans on land have hunted sea dwellers for centuries, making it too dangerous for the likes of Luca and Alberto to roam freely. But, in a fun twist on “The Little Mermaid” formula, there’s no sea witch to grant wishes, instead Luca and Alberto morph into their human counterparts immediately upon touching the surface, only exposing their true “monster” form when splashed with water (just hope it doesn’t rain). The animation techniques that document the transition from “monster” to human can’t be an easy one, but in Pixar’s extremely capable hands, it looks effortless.
Together, the two pubescent tweens roam about and fantasize of a life that co-exists with humans and Vespas which Alberto proudly declares is “the greatest thing humans have ever invented.” They venture to the nearby town of Portorosso and meet Giulia (Emma Berman, a newcomer who essentially steals the show), an ambitious young tyke eager to dethrone local hooligan Ercole (Saverio Raimondo) for the town’s yearly triathlon, a competition consisting of swimming, eating pasta, and cycling. Naturally, Ercole doesn’t take kindly to newbies, setting up the primary antagonist who, in a past life, is probably the food critic, Ego from “Ratatouille.”
The main trio form an exceptional bond and the gorgeous blue and orange color scheme that blanket the entire film makes it a shame Disney decided to commission this as a streaming only release, where its big, bright, and colorful scenery would have done wonders on a larger canvas (made apparent during the closing credits where it states “Optimized for IMAX screens”).
The remainder of the cast - rounded out by Maya Rudolph, Jim Gaffigan, Sandy Martin and Marco Barriceli - are keen reminders Pixar knows how to enliven their characters with incredible actors even if some personas don’t break away from conventional tendencies. The screenplay penned by Jesse Andrews and Mike Jones sits at the lower end of Pixar’s canon. and as much as I appreciate the visual splendor, “Luca” constantly feels like a greatest hits album rather than its own unique personality. The idea of sea monsters living in disguise among humans is an interesting hook that never fully develops beyond an occasional aside - and when confronted with it towards the climax, the screenwriters shrug it off - and though its ending strikes the emotional Pixar gravitas we’ve come to expect, “Luca” can’t resist manipulating the audiences with tireless troupes relating to family and friendship. You cry, but deep down you know it’s the same card played over and over. Then again, that’s the magic of Pixar, retooling the familiar for a warm embrace and be damned if it doesn’t work every time.
Side gags and tiny bits - there’s a hilarious cat who stalks the boy’s every move, not to mention the clever way Luca’s parents try to find their son, by dousing local kids in buckets of water - populate the breezy 90 minute runtime, making effective use of its sunny locale while delivering a heartwarming story that’ll keep kiddos entertained and begging for Vespas at the same time.
LUCA debuts on Disney+ Friday, June 18th