Just off the coast of the Italian Riviera, beneath its gold and glistening waters, sea monsters roam wildly. These green and scaled creatures, however, don't spend their days terrorizing the humanfolk or kidnapping babies for breakfast, but rather live their lives in as much fear of the humans as the humans are of them.
The sea monster life is the simple life in Luca, the latest tale from Pixar Animation Studios, and that is exactly what its title character detests. A young and timid boy from an overprotective family of goatfish-herding sea monsters, Luca Paguro seeks to break his family's most deeply-held pact - never go above the surface.
Luckily for them, Luca is way too shy to ever attempt such a feat himself, but his life is turned upside-down with the presence of Alberto, a fellow sea monster who pulls young Luca onto land. When they are out of the water, sea monsters magically take on human form, and it is in this new skin that Luca and Alberto forge a deep friendship, running away from their aquatic home in search of adventure and a shiny new Vespa in the town of Portorosso.
The beautifully rendered and charmingly told Luca serves as an impressive debut for its director Enrico Casarosa, and a welcome reminder of the consistent quality of Pixar's stories. The quality of animation however, is what is truly on full display here, and that is greatly aided by Casarosa's decidedly unique visual style.
The film is undoubtedly beautiful. The coastal scenery of the Riviera, the aquatic wonders of its shores, and the sheer detail of the town are all lovingly crafted and gorgeously rendered with an eye for authenticity that could only have come from a true Italian native.
Casarosa, who originally hails from the seaside town of Genoa, Italy has made no secret of how personal his connection with this film is. In addition to the obvious influence of the setting, Casarosa has said how his boyhood friendship with a real-life Alberto navigated the on-screen bond of our two stars. In his words, "Childhood friendships often set the course of who we want to become, and it is those bonds that are at the heart of our story."
That friendship is at the thematic core of Luca, which offers the usual emotional charges we've come to expect from the folks at Pixar, though in a way that can't help feeling a little more paint-by-numbers, and less full-blown originality, than some of the studio's most celebrated efforts. The vocal performances are surely assets that the film uses well, with young stars Jacob Tremblay and Jack Dylan Grazer delivering emotionally rich turns as the sea monster boys. But when placed in the pantheon of a studio that tearfully made Andy give Woody away, tracked emotions as they raced through the head of a young girl, and made a mostly silent movie of two robots falling in love, Luca can't help feeling decidedly… safe. It's story is still emotionally rich, impactful, and ultimately cathartic, but the risks this film takes are far lesser than the ones needed to make it a classic.
Still, the greatest criticism one could level at the film may not be at anything that's presented on screen at all, but rather at the screen itself. Due to the new reality we are in, and the streaming-only release of Pixar's previous film, Soul, Luca has become the second film in Pixar's history to avoid movie theaters completely in favor of a Disney+ exclusive release. It is anyone's guess why the higher-ups at Disney decided upon this release plan as opposed to their recent trend of day-and-date theatrical and Disney+ releases, but it is impossible not to think of what was lost in that decision. A film as visually rich and beautifully animated as Luca deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible, and not on somebody's MacBook.
But ultimately, no matter where it is viewed, Luca makes for fulfilling family entertainment. Though it may not reach the emotional heights of some of the most celebrated efforts in the Pixar canon, it is surely a solid addition to it, and serves as ample proof that its young director is a force to be reckoned with.