If you’ve been a perceptive viewer of Pixar content for the past two decades you’ll notice that not all Pixar films are built the same. There’s the truly great additions that feel as though they’re part of a secret continuity of talented writers, then there’s the throwaway Pixar films, that are, at best, half measured attempts to truly live up to the big boys. Luca, for the first time, feels like a Pixar film that sits somewhere in between these two categories, and I want to get to the bottom of why.
Luca, as the film’s title suggests, is about a young boy named, you guessed it, Luca, who embarks on an unforgettable summer on the Italian Riviera after he runs away from home. Luca himself also happens to be a sea monster that can shapeshift into human form. Audiences go on a journey with Luca and his newfound friend Alberto (also a sea monster) and a young girl named Giulia (not a sea monster) as they explore and live within the town of Portorosso – coincidentally, a town that is revered for their hatred of sea monsters. If you hadn’t already guessed it, Luca is about friendship and being an outsider in a strange new environment, and of course, demonization of those who are different (i.e sea monsters).
If there’s anything true to take away from this Pixar flick, it’s that the narrative is positively brimming with themes pertaining to childhood itself. Throughout Luca we see the character of Luca go through many of the stages of childhood, as he sees the world for the first time, discovers the value of friendship, learns about his inner strength and determination, and experiences the reality of growing apart from others. There’s simply a lot happening here that story writers Enrico Casarosa, Jesse Andrews, and Simon Stephenson want to say – in many ways it’s like an insurance policy, everybody’s covered when a film is saying this much.
But with such a wide net comes with it its own set of challenges; Luca expends a lot of energy to try and breach some sort of emotional surface during its final act; there’s this impression it’ll be an emotionally riveting event, one where all the pieces fall into place; where Luca, Alberto, and Giulia encounter some deep fundamental truth about themselves – in true Pixar fashion. The reality however, is much different, as the climax is more akin to a fish out of water than a graceful dive into the deep. Luca is a ship hauling a heavy load of narrative strings, most of which had to be hastily dumped overboard before it reached the shore. There is still plenty to enjoy here in terms of the journey these characters go on; it’s an undeniably charming film with a tone to it that’s as warm as the summer days on this Italian seaside.
Luca provides an embracing visual aesthetic that can be compared to the likes of Moana. Pixar, once again, crafts another animated title that is worthy to be among the industry leaders in pure animation quality. While it doesn’t have the flashy aspects of lighting or virtual camera shots as something like Toy Story 4, it does provide a beautiful balance of its visual components that absorb you into the small-scale world being created. A mixture of colourful vibrancy and expressive visuals engross you into summer in the Italian Riviera, where the simplicity of the animation is just as captivating as the photorealism of Soul. The character designs are a bit cartoonish, but it fits nicely inside the visual aesthetic as it allows the characters to be freely expressive.
The film begins under the surface as Luca lives as a sea monster but doesn’t take the time to further explore that underwater world or the social fabric that lives within it. The majority of the film takes place in the world above the sea on the Italian Riviera that replicates Cinque Terre, where the steep mountains drop into the sea with the seaside villages hanging on the coast. Luca does an astounding job of creating realistic landscapes complemented by watercolor palette texture that create an absorbing atmosphere. At first, director Enrico Casarosa wanted the legendary Italian composer Ennio Morricone (who scored The Hateful 8, 2015) to compose the score for Luca, but sadly passed away before being asked. Dan Romer was then chosen as the composer who was able to blend together the right element of Italian inspired tunes through the use of an accordion mixed in with the familiar beats we are accustomed to hearing throughout Pixar’s films. Romer’s score was able to capture the sense of adventure and exploration that Luca and Alberto were experiencing while exploring the surface world.
Luca contains all of the necessary ingredients for another masterful Pixar flick, but ultimately struggles to meaningfully execute on its promise of self-discovery. What it does achieve, is providing a heartfelt journey that warms the inner cockles of one’s heart; sure, this isn’t a revelatory exploration into uncharted depths, but it makes you feel good, and that’s good, I’m good, it’s all good.