Sunday, June 20, 2021

Luca (2021)

As much as the global COVID-19 pandemic affected Disney’s output, it also had an effect on Pixar. When the onset of the pandemic forced theater closures, Onward, which had only just released, went straight to Disney+. Since then, Soul released directly on Disney+ for free that Christmas, followed by their most recent film, Luca. We admittedly didn’t expect much from Luca based on the initial trailers, but we decided we would watch it anyway since we had seen every other film from the studio. While the end result may not have the same emotional weight as the average film from the studio, its lighter tone actually works in its favor.

Luca Paguro (Jacob Tremblay), a pre-teen sea monster, herds a school of fish every day while his parents, Daniela (Maya Rudolph) and Lorenzo (Jim Gaffigan), restrict him from going to the surface world out of fear. One day, Luca meets another sea monster, Alberto Scorfano (Jack Dylan Grazer), who gives him a taste of life on the surface. When his parents discover that he’s spent time on the surface, they want to send him to live with his uncle Ugo (Sacha Baron Cohen) at the bottom of the sea. In response, Luca runs away with Alberto to the nearby city of Portorosso, where the boys hope to obtain a Vespa so they can travel the world. All the while, however, they must keep their true identities a secret.

To some extent, one could compare Luca with Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Both films’ leads are curious about life on the surface, have parents who forbid leaving the sea and display a fascination with human trinkets, even if they’re unsure of their exact purpose. That’s mainly where the similarities end, however, as each lead has a different motivation. Where Ariel sought a romantic relationship with Prince Eric, Luca sought to maintain the deep bond he had quickly made with Alberto, who had pushed him out of his comfort zone and made him believe that he could do anything he put his mind to.

Luca (Jacob Tremblay; right) quickly bonds with
Alberto Scorfano (Jack Dylan Grazer; left) on the surface.

Luca and Alberto’s identities as sea monsters serve as an effective metaphor for feeling different, especially since it factors heavily into the plot. During their quest to win prize money for a Vespa, they go to great lengths to keep their identity a secret from everyone in Portorosso, a town that actively hunts sea monsters. This includes a girl, Giulia Marcovaldo (Emma Berman), whom they befriend and are worried will hate them if she discovers who they really are. The boys’ friendship is also put to the test the more time they spend with Giulia, as she brings out Luca’s passion for knowledge, which causes him to question whether a life out on the open road, as he originally planned with Alberto, is really for him.

As Luca and Alberto figure out their place in the world, they must also contend with Ercole Visconti (Saverio Raimondo), a local self-centered bully that no one likes. Compared with some more recent Disney/Pixar films, his antagonistic nature feels refreshingly straightforward as opposed to awkwardly crafting a twist villain. One can hope that future films will follow suit.

At around 90 minutes, Luca also moves at a good pace, giving each moment enough time without dragging it out. Fittingly for the generally lighter tone, one of the bigger conflicts during the second act gets resolved fairly quickly without feeling rushed or underdeveloped and ties in well with Luca’s inner conflict at that point in the film. Some story beats can feel predictable, but no less effective, and the conclusion still feels emotionally satisfying. There’s also plenty of humor within the character interactions, as well as the creative measures Luca’s parents take to find their son. It helps that the film has very strong voice acting from all of the characters, including some very age-appropriate casting decisions.

Along with a well-written story, Luca has incredible animation. The Italian riviera is rendered beautifully and the town of Portorosso has clear history and character, with aesthetically pleasing architecture that still feels lived-in. Most impressive are the water effects and the transitions some characters undergo between their human and sea monster forms, especially with how rain specifically interacts with different parts of their body. While Pixar has experimented with the art style of their previous films, including stylizing otherwise realistic forms, Luca’s characters look more cartoony. This actually helps the film stand out more from its predecessors and is a direction that would be interesting for Pixar to continue in.

Portorosso is rendered spectacularly.

Even without the same emotional weight as many of Pixar’s previous films, like Soul, Luca still stands out as one of Pixar’s better films in recent memory. Its lighter tone and generally straightforward narrative feel refreshing and the execution still helps it fit in with the rest of the studio’s catalog. Whether or not you were already a Pixar fan, you’ll certainly find something to like in Luca.

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