Director: Enrico Casarosa
Date: June 18, 2021
PG | 1 hour 41 minutes
Disney Studios and Pixar Animation Studios’ partnership was formed on the question, “What if (blank) had feelings?” In 1995, that blank was replaced with toys and the groundbreaking “Toy Story” was released. Twenty years later, the two studios became existential, asking “What if feelings had feelings?” The result was their masterpiece “Inside Out.”
At a surface level, “Luca” seems to ask “What if sea monsters had feelings,” but it becomes evident that debutant director Enrico Casarosa wants to tell a more grounded tale — one that revolves around two boys, their beautiful Italian town and Vespa scooters.
Streaming on Disney+, “Luca” tells the story of Luca Paguro (Jacob Tremblay), a young sea monster exhausted by the monotonous life underwater and forbidden by his parents, Daniela (Maya Rudolph) and Lorenzo (Jim Gaffigan), to go beyond the surface. One day, Luca meets the daring Alberto Scorfano (Jack Dylan Grazer) as he casually leaves the ocean, transforming from a sea monster to a human.
Together, Luca and Alberto have an unforgettable summer as they discover the wonders of the town of Portorosso. They find a friend in Giulia (Emma Berman), become enemies with the town show-off Ercole (Saverio Raimondo), train for a local triathlon and eat a copious amount of Italian food — all while riding scooters.
The movie is Pixar’s least ambitious effort, which works for and against the film. The simple storytelling is easy to digest and makes for a breezy watch. There are plenty of jokes that will appeal to adults and kids alike — a cameo from Sacha Baron Cohen playing Luca’s creepy uncle stands out as the film’s best gag and an instant favorite character.
As great as it is to see the two mega studios pursue original stories, the movie plays it too safe with typical animated film tropes: the timid protagonist who finds courage, overprotective parents, a rebellious friend. The beats are all too familiar and Casarosa never seizes the opportunity to create something one-of-a-kind.
Instead, the director chooses to focus on the aesthetic of the movie, and does a terrific job. He’s able to capture the Italian Riviera with bright colors and vibrancy. It seems that with each new feature, Pixar sets new benchmarks in animation. There are moments in the film where the pasta or old Italian buildings look real. The animation is similar to Studio Ghibli movies — hand drawn instead of computer generated — making it more visually appealing.
It’s a shame Disney decided to release the movie solely on its streaming service. It would’ve looked incredible on a big screen. In addition to the visuals, the score by Dan Romer is whimsical and melodious.
These technical aspects are elevated by a strong voice cast.
Tremblay (“Room,” “Good Boys”) does a nice job matching Luca’s frantic and nervous personality and adds a bit of aloofness to the character. Even when Luca makes a bad decision, the viewer still roots for him because Tremblay makes him so likable. Grazer (“It,” “Shazam!”) is equally good and excels in the movie’s emotional scenes.
Rudolph ( “Bridesmaids,” “The Mitchells vs. the Machines”) is on a roll with these mother roles — and rightfully so. She effortlessly plays the loving but protective Daniela and has one of the movie’s key moments trying to find her son in a swarm of Italian children. Newcomer Berman is also endearing along with Gaffigan (“Super Troopers 2,” “Tesla”), who’s hilarious as a goofball father. Martin (“Speed,” “Dumbo”) doesn’t get many scenes as Luca’s grandmother but steals every one she’s in.
Even though this movie plays it safe at times, its heart puts it in the same bucket as some of the best in the Pixar canon. The ending is bittersweet and effective, tugging at the heartstrings, yet leaving the viewer with hope — and the feeling that there will be an inevitable sequel.
At its best, this movie is a breath of fresh air — a break from unoriginal or mediocre animated movies. These are new characters with a new setting to fall in love with. It never becomes a transcendent piece of work, but is able to rely on its stunning visuals to create a visceral experience. It’s like the gelato Luca and Alberto eat: refreshing, sweet and leaves the viewer wanting more.
“Luca,” rated PG, is now streaming on Disney+.