It’s hard to think of a modern studio that’s embraced more innovative ideas than Pixar. Even at Pixar’s most original, though, you can see where the seeds of inspiration might’ve stemmed. Before Toy Story, John Lasseter was attached to direct The Brave Little Toaster, another animated feature about living inanimate objects. The Incredibles followed in the footsteps of The Tick, Freakazoid, and various other superhero satires. Watching Luca, it’s hard not to draw parallels to The Little Mermaid and Moana. A basic premise isn’t what makes a movie great, however. What matters is how charming the characters are, how appealing the world is, and how well the central idea is executed. Pixar excels in these departments, and Luca continues this tradition, even if it’s not among the studio’s all-time greats.
Jacob Tremblay is wonderful as Luca Paguro, a young sea monster living off the coast of an Italian village called Portorosso. Whenever sea monsters venture above water, their scaly bodies take on human exteriors. Given the number of harpoons in Portorosso, Luca’s parents (Maya Rudolph, Jim Gaffigan) forbid their son from venturing to the surface. Luca receives encouragement from his rebellious grandmother (Sandy Martin) and new friend Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), a charismatic collector of human stuff. Luca and Alberto escape to Portorosso in hopes of acquiring a Vespa. To get the funds, they decide to sign up for a race with a local girl named Giulia (Emma Berman).
Portorosso captures 1950s Italy at its most idyllic with multicolored buildings, sun-lit streets, and seaside views around every corner. Tremblay, Berman, and Grazer bring a genuine rapport to their dynamic, making for one of the most likable animated trios of recent memory. Director Enrico Casarosa previously brought us the Oscar-nominated short La Luna. Luca possesses a similar visual style that encompasses the simplicity of a storybook and the cutting-edge technology we’d expect from Pixar. The funniest visual gags involve Luca and Alberto getting wet on dry land, attracting suspicion from several locals and a housecat.
While some outlets have compared Luca and Alberto’s relationship to Call Me by Your Name, Casarosa claims these similarities are purely coincidental. Even if there isn’t an explicitly LGBTQ+ theme, this story can be applied to anyone who’s concealed their identity to avoid persecution. Naturally, Luca and Alberto’s secret eventually comes out. While the “liar revealed” trope can be frustrating in other movies, it thankfully isn’t dragged out here. For all the familiarity, Luca never comes off as clichéd. This is a delightful film from start to finish, although it doesn’t take as many risks as Pixar’s best work.
The story is short on surprises, at least for adult viewers. While the film’s final destination is a heartwarming one, it hits all the beats we expect. There is one twist concerning Alberto’s father that’s kind of rare for a Disney property, although even this revelation could’ve used further exploration. The young trio’s egotistical rival (Saverio Raimondo) is also among the weaker Pixar villains, despite occasionally getting a chuckle. These qualms are minor, however, in what’s otherwise a warmly animated, effectively told coming-of-age story.
If Soul was Pixar’s Spirited Away, then Luca is the studio’s Porco Rosso. And no, this isn’t merely because the Italian setting is called Portorosso. Porco Rosso isn’t Hayao Miyazaki’s magnum opus, but it is a humorous, atmospheric film that’s hard to dislike. As far as 2021’s animated offerings go, Luca isn’t as epic as Raya and the Last Dragon or as inventive as The Mitchells vs. the Machines. Like a home-cooked plate of pasta, though, it’s comfort food at its finest.