Luca (2021)

Directed by Enrico Casarosa
Written by Jesse Andrews & Mike Jones

Pixar has been an animation giant since bursting onto the scene with feature length, computer generated kids movies with Toy Story back in the mid-90s. Who among us has not enjoyed at least some of their work across the years? And in fact, they have now been around long enough that the kids who first enjoyed their work in the 90s are having kids and sharing in the joy of Pixar. Of course, Disney and Ghibli, and many other studios have made a lasting impact on animation and fans of the form throughout cinema history. Pixar is such a small chunk of the history, but they along with Disney have made a huge impact in the last 30 years. Luca is the 2021 delivery from the famed studio, and continues to show just how progressive they can be in terms of showing different cultures, different creatures, and different experiences. By handing the reigns over to a filmmaker like Enrico Casarosa to tell a story important and special to him, the studio allows for artistic license which leads to personal and heartfelt movie experiences for audiences.

Luca (Jacob Tremblay) is a young sea monster living with his family (Maya Rudolph and Jim Gaffigan) in the Mediterranean Sea just off the coast of Italy. He shepherds a school of fish, fearful of what may lie outside his aquatic home, hiding in the shadows of the sea floor when a human boat floats by on the surface. But one day he discovers beautiful human trinkets being collected by Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), a fellow sea monster who routinely leaves the sea to become human. Luca and Alberto soon enough dream up a journey to the nearby human town to buy a Vespa scooter and start an adventure together. But once in town, they become close friends with Giulia (Emma Berman), an underdog who dreams of winning the town race, unseating the reigning champion and insufferable Giacomo (Giacomo Gianniotti). Luca and Alberto must evade detection in this town who hates sea monsters with a passion, all the while developing a lasting friendship with the human girl Giulia and enjoying pasta, seafood and gelato by the seaside.

What is immediately striking about Luca is the setting on the Italian Riviera in the summertime. The film pops with bursts of color and culture, making me seriously crave a vacation to the Mediterranean coast to likewise enjoy pasta and gelato in idyllic Italy. What the film really captures is this sense of time and place, making for a joyous backdrop on which to tell this story. Given this setting, however, it also makes for a more laconic pacing and tone, as we luxuriate in the beaches and seaside towns of the Italian Riviera. That is not to say the story does not ultimately crescendo to a momentous and satisfying conclusion, it totally does, but the journey is at a much more relaxed, slower pace, which is a nice shift from some of the more chaotic and frenzied options available in both animation and films in general these days. It was a joy to let the film just wash over me, as opposed to catching breath just to keep up.

In many ways, the film evokes Ghibli and famed animator Hayao Miyazaki than it does compared to anything else Disney or Pixar as produced in recent years, and that is a large compliment, even if the finished product is ultimately not as imaginative or effective as Miyazaki’s works. But the central theme of literally a fish out of water, of the acceptance of being different, is handled extremely well and the film’s strongest element which makes it another Pixar success. I could wax poetical about how this is a fable about LGBQT+, and it does work as that and was my first impression of the film (which also calls to the incredible Italian countryside LGBQT+ film Call Me By Your Name from a few years ago), but taking the message a little more general I think is extremely rewarding and informative to the audience. Being different is central to life. Not being the same, or agreeing completely with everyone is central to life. Finding those who can be our friends and even our allies is vital to being our best selves and living our best lives. These messages lie just under the surface of a mostly fun and enjoyable story, which elevates it from being average to being great and important.

Now it’s not everyday that I might choose to compare the latest Pixar film to such a high-brow indie film as Call Me By Your Name, or even comparing it to a fellow animation studio such as Studio Ghibli, but here we are. Luca is likely not as good, nor as effective as those films, but it also has a wider audience to tell its story to. Like Coco before it, Luca manages to find cultural respect in a story that can told universally. And while Luca likely lands somewhere in the middle of my Pixar rankings, it proves the studio as a forward thinking, imaginative innovator who isn’t afraid to branch out and tell stories that don’t talk down to their largely adolescent audiences, while expanding their horizons when it comes to culture and representation. Now every once in a while I’m game to see a talking baby boss people around for laughs too, but I also think animation is a genre that doesn’t have to be limited to a childish, cheap laugh either. Pixar is that beacon proving that the limits of the form are in fact limitless.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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