I’ve done several Pixar reviews for this site already, dating back to Toy Story 4 through to Soul. And every single one I cover tends to start with the usual: something something unique, something something they set the standard, etc. By now you know the drill. They’re still considered the best in the business. And while several other animation studios are worthy of the mantle (particularly Laika, Walt Disney Feature Animation, and Sony Pictures Animation are coming for it), at this juncture, Pixar’s only greatest competition is Pixar.
As such it’s a little unfair for Luca, another fine animated film in their canon, to be compared to classics like Wall-E, Up, or Ratatouille. The truth of the matter is it isn’t as inventive as those films, or their previous effort, Soul. But that doesn’t stop the movie from being one of the most heartfelt and downright sweet experiences you’ll have at the movies this year.
Luca is certainly one of the lighter works to come from the studio in a while, but that’s not a bad thing, and it’s significantly better than run of the mill mediocrity from films like Onward, Monsters University, or The Good Dinosaur. I’d put it somewhere near the first Monsters Inc. and somewhere below Coco in my rankings. What Luca has going for it is a beautiful heart at its center, defined exclusively by this wonderful friendship between its primary characters, Luca Paguro (Jacob Tremblay) and Alberto Scorfano (Jack Dylan Grazer); two sea monsters living off the coast of an Italian Riviera town called Portorosso.
Luca has lived a sheltered life defined by obeying the wishes of his over protective parents Lorenzo and Daniela (Jim Gaffigan and Maya Rudolph), who forbid him from going to the surface due to the dangerous nature of humans (aka “land monsters”). One day though, Luca meets Alberto, a fellow sea monster who lives on a nearby island by himself, and spends his days collecting artifacts from the surface while dreaming of freedom on a Vespa. Luca and Alberto instantly embark on a friendship, with Alberto inspiring Luca to step out of his comfort zone and embrace aspects about the surface that aren’t all that bad, including their ability to appear human when out of water. Together they spend their days doing really ridiculously dangerous and dumb things, like building homemade Vespas and launching themselves off ramps, off cliffs. When Luca gets caught doing these things by his parents, and they threaten to send him to live in the dark depths of the ocean with his uncle, he and Alberto decide to run away to Portorosso to pose as humans. In Portorosso, they’re introduced to human girl, Giulia and her large father Massimo, as well as local bully Ercole Visconti. Luca, Alberto, and Giulia decide to enter a race and beat Ercole in the competition to win prize money, so Alberto and Luca can buy a Vespa and live off the road. However, as Luca spends more time on the surface, he starts to want more. And that ends up putting a strain on his and Alberto’s friendship.
As convoluted and verbose as my summary was, it’s actually a very simple story of friendship and growth. The interesting thing I found was that Pixar would release a film as accessible to all ages as Luca on the heels of one that was as mature as Soul was. I absolutely loved Soul, but by no means would I recommend it for anyone under 7, simply on the basis of the characters’ struggles being somewhat more adult in nature. It’s one that kids may have trouble identifying with, but for adults like myself, it’s applicable to life every day. Luca tones that down and really makes a film that’s more universal from a maturity standpoint. I think adults and kids of all ages can definitely identify with the themes of friendship in this movie, and the idea of staying true to one’s self, regardless of whether it makes you an underdog or not. I think in our lives, it’s easy to recall times when we’ve been pressured to abandon friends to the call of self-preservation and peer pressure to side with the majority on matters. And our characters’ friendships are tested here significantly in the same way. While I anticipated that there would be some themes about prejudice and racism explored in the film, it simply wasn’t the focus here. The primary themes of the film are about embracing yourself, standing up and standing by the people in life that mean the world to you, and (in the grand tradition of films like Ralph Breaks the Internet) learning when to let go of the ones you love and the ones who turn you into a better people, because it’s the best thing for them.
I think those themes are primarily explored especially in the relationship between Alberto and Luca, but also between Luca and his parents. Luca’s a character that (as previously mentioned) has been sheltered all his life and finally gets the opportunity to grow. And as a result, through love and support, other characters around him are able to grow as well. Alberto, for example, as a character is exceptionally complex. His backstory joins the ranks of many others in the Pixar cannon that tragically have to deal with solitude and abandonment. How that’s molded him as a person, but how that changes thanks to his friendship with Luca is the centerpiece of the film, and (in my opinion) the most heartbreaking/heartwarming aspect of the movie. You really finish the movie loving the two characters and what they mean to each other, and it will inevitably cause you to shed a single tear or two by the finale. It is the source of the film’s heart and ultimately its greatest strength.
Tremblay and Grazer do such a phenomenal job embodying Luca and Alberto. Their chemistry is priceless and their vocal work is funny, charming, and sweet. This is nothing new for Pixar, which has made its bread and butter off buddy-pictures. It is because the friendship between Alberto and Luca is such a winner that these two arguably and easily join the ranks of such duos as Mike and Sully from Monsters Inc. or Marlin and Dory from Finding Nemo.
However, we can’t sell short the third musketeer of the Underdog Trio in the film: breakout star Emma Berman, who plays Giulia. Berman, a relative newcomer to film, shines with as much electricity and energy as her experienced co-stars, and brings spirit and life to Giulia that is so central to the plot and the evolution of both Luca and Alberto, I’d be remiss in not mentioning. Giulia is endearing and adorable, frequently stealing most scenes she’s in.
The voice cast overall has just performed admirably, although, arguably, Rudolph and Gaffigan don’t get as much to do from a comedic standpoint, which is a shame. On the other hand, it also really afforded for relatively less known actors like Marco Barricelli to take the spotlight. Barricelli’s Massimo is also another hidden gem in the film; a character also capable of changing for the ones he loves, and one that shares one of the most tender, softer, sympathetic sides in the film — particularly in the character’s relationship with Alberto.
The animation and the music, as we always expect from Pixar, is truly flawless. They really mix up the animation this time, drawing more inspiration from 2D cartoons than their usual photoreal look. And the result, whether it’s the exaggerated features or gesticulations from the characters, pays off significantly, giving the film a unique feel that stands out from other Pixar gems. The effects, particularly in what these wizards are able to do with the transformation scenes, are top notch, and deserved to be commended simply on the basis of complexity alone. The music, both the touching score by composer Dan Romer (Beasts of Southern Wild) and 50s inspired Italian soundtrack is perfecto! I explicitly found myself tapping my toes to every track, as it swept me carefree into the Italian Riviera, like the vacation I always dreamt of.
The one thing, however, keeping me from giving Luca a higher score is that it didn’t explore its themes or characters as deeply as I had hoped it would. Perhaps it’s my personal expectation for Pixar to destroy my heart into a million pieces with every film, but I felt like, while the final act of the film is sweeping and still earned, it would have left a much stronger emotional impact if they had gone deeper and leaned into some of the more emotionally devastating aspects of the characters. Alberto’s backstory, for instance, is insanely tragic. But we never really get much more out of it other than a single scene in which it’s explored. And while I appreciated that scene enough for me to feel an emotional impact, the gut punch isn’t nearly as impactful as I’ve felt better films like Up or Finding Nemo, which explored emotional traumas early and throughout their respective films, ultimately did. The ending scene is also incredibly emotional and felt earned enough, but I think it could have been done better if they deepened the relationship between Alberto and Luca throughout the film.
**HUGE SPOILER ALERT** Take for example, the aforementioned Ralph Breaks the Internet. The scene where Vanellope and Ralph part ways is insanely sad and sweet, and had me crying, because we knew and followed these characters for two films straight. We don’t get nearly enough time with Alberto or Luca to make that same emotional connection, and thus, them parting ways isn’t quite as gut-wrenching. **HUGE SPOILER ALERT**
We get these things, and get them enough for them to feel earned enough. But I do think there were opportunities to explore them further and deepen the emotion. Even the themes of prejudice in the film are never greatly explored. They’re sort of there, and then sort of go away. And I think that’s something that really could have been a great source of emotional complexity and realism for the film, but it’s just generally accepted and dismissed. And to me that was a hugely missed opportunity. I may be a masochist, but I want my Pixar films to break me the way reality does, but ultimately, Luca more or less just chipped me.
That doesn’t mean it’s not beautiful or unemotional. It’s still incredibly heartfelt and pure, which is, again, so much more than I can say about mediocre product like Onward. It is a playful, funny movie, with spirited performances, and well thought out characters that are easy to love. It’s charming and heartwarming in all the ways a Pixar movie should be, but it’s just lighter, and definitely more suited for the little ones than a heavier, more mature film like Soul was. All in all, that’s a-okay, because it’s just a downright purely sweet-natured movie that will make you look back at the best friendships you’ve had in your life, and get you smiling along with the films characters.
Also make sure you watch the credits themselves, as they actually go into a bit of what happens to the characters following the events of the film. You won’t want to miss that, or Luca in general.
Overall Score: A-
Luca hits Disney+ free of charge on June 18!