Disney/Pixar really nail childhood’s sense of wonder in their latest “fish-man out of water” tale.
Luca came out of left field for me. I figured a new Pixar movie would have been hyped to the heavens, considering that two Pixar movies got Oscar nominations last year. But Luca quietly slipped onto Disney+ this week, and if I hadn’t seen Jim Gaffigan goofing on his role in it on Twitter, I’d have probably missed it until the next episode of Loki dropped.
Luckily, I got a chance to see the film, and was glad for the experience. While it doesn’t exactly break the mold, it feels like a classic Pixar flick. It’s bright, vibrant, filled with wonder, funny in a family-friendly way, and filled with gee-whiz moments. Let’s, ahem, dive in.
Set in a beautiful seaside town on the Italian Riviera, the original animated feature is a coming-of-age story about one young boy experiencing an unforgettable summer filled with gelato, pasta and endless scooter rides. Luca (Jacob Tremblay) shares these adventures with his newfound best friends, but all the fun is threatened by a deeply-held secret: he is a sea monster from another world just below the water’s surface.
Aqua della Vita
As I mentioned in my review of Raya and the Last Dragon, Disney really loves to lean into their excellent water effects. While Luca is not a technically breathtaking as Raya, it does use the watery setting and CG muscle built up by the studio to create a world full of imagination. Whether at the bottom of the ocean or soaring through the heavens, everything is funneled through Luca’s understanding of the world…which is completely based on the sea.
An easy snippet to describe Luca could be “The Little Mermaid, minus the romance but plus more wonderment.” Luca does a lot of the “naive and awestruck kid from under the water makes harebrained deductions about what items from the human world are intended for” that worked so well in the early parts of The Little Mermaid, but it sustains that vibe for the entirety of the film. Everything Luca discovers about the seaside town of Portorosso just blows his mind, and his blustery buddy, Alberto, loves to act like the big man by making galaxy-brained explanations for what stuff does. It brings out a lot of comedy, and it also suffuses the film with a constant theme of discovery and joy.
At the heart of the film is a love letter written to Italy. Some elements of it can come off as thin stereotypes, with certain characters being cliched and certain elements of culture being bludgeoned (we get it, there’s a lot of pasta in Italy. Also, I can’t say for sure, as a non Italian, but is “Santa Mozzarella” really a swap an Italian kid would use to avoid blasphemy? I know my Grandma had a whole host of French alternatives, but they weren’t all references to stereotypical French stuff like baguettes or brie!)
Despite this, it does come across as a genuine and sincere ode to Italy, especially small town, coastal Italian village life. The good-natured ribbing of Italian stereotypes actually helps confirm its sincerity. All of the film’s jabs at stuff like worshiping Vespa scooters and gelato and heaping bowls of pasta turn potential prejudice into an inside joke, and allows the film to indulge in celebration of all the aspects of the culture you may not be familiar with.
Luca is the kind of film that just feels like a sunny childhood afternoon. It’s not exactly trumpeting big ideas or moral profundity; just the day-to-day things that build up a satisfying life. Community, friendship, food, and even exercise! The characters are sincere, if not entirely rounded, and well voiced. It’s the perfect film to recapture your childish sense of wonder, where everyone and everything is packed with potential, and the world is filled with amazement and discovery.