Directed by Enrico Casarosa
Written by Jesse Andrews, Mike Jones, Simon Stephenson, and Enrico Casarosa
Luca feels like a deliberate rollback for Pixar, and on the one hand there's much to like about the way it just wants to introduce some characters, soak in their vibe, and basically top out the goals of its heroes at whether they can win enough money in a stupid contest to buy a Vespa. There is also a lot not to like about it, starting with the way it retreats from Pixar's customary grandeur but leaves the structure largely in place, starting with [a hidden world that operates on its own rules] and ending with [an action-comedy chase sequence], not unlike what feels like fifty or sixty Pixar movies before it, though this is only the 24th. Meanwhile, when it ratchets down, it ratchets down hard, from the lackadaisical pacing of the thing, to the way it seems vastly more interested in exploring a boringly picturesque seaside town than the undersea realm that it invented (and it's not that interested in exploring the town), right up to the way it comes off like even the animators, designers, and technicians came at it like a lazy Sunday themselves. There is every indication that Disney intended to release Luca in theaters, and it's only thanks to the pandemic that they threw it up onto Disney Plus instead (and, tellingly, without any fuck-that-shit thirty buck premium, though they did that for Soul, too, and Soul actually was a big deal); even so, there's something almost direct-to-video about Luca, like dumping it on streaming really always was the plan.
Well, Luca begins off the coast of Portorosso on the Italian Riviera, where we find its eponymous hero, young Luca (Jacob Tremblay), a merboy who lives on a little undersea homestead with his ineffectual merman dad (Jim Gaffigan) and his overprotective merwoman mom (Maya Rudolph), and who has lately grown awfully curious about the "land monsters" who appear overhead on their boats and sometimes drop interesting, mysterious objects, and this curiosity builds, of course, into an inchoate yearning to be a part of their world. Enabling him is fellow merboy Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), who has taken advantage of their people's remarkable ability to spontaneously shapeshift into humans as soon as they hit the air and dry off. Alberto appoints himself Luca's guide to human society, and, from atop the dilapidated house on a nearby island that Alberto's absentee father has left him alone in, they observe humanity and get really, absurdly passionate about making mock-ups of Italian motorbikes, but when Luca's parents find out what's going on while Luca's supposed to be tending his herd of fish, they make plans to separate their son from Alberto's bad influence and send him off for the summer to his uncle Ugo's (Sacha Baron Cohen's) house in the sunless deep.
Luca, having tasted air and freedom, runs away in the night, and he and Alberto make their way to Portorosso. There they're taken in by a girl their age, Giulia (Emma Berman), and they join her in her ongoing effort to win the town's big event, the Portorosso Cup—a triathlon of swimming, cycling, and, um, eating pasta, because, God bless 'em, movies about Europeans can still be outlandishly reductive about local cultures (though since the pasta actually comes before the cycling, you can see the inherent challenge of it). Giulia intends to beat the town's inordinately shitheeled bully, Ercole (Saverio Raimondo), and a victory should also net Luca and Alberto enough money to get their Vespa and buzz aimlessly around the surface world; but when Alberto realizes that Luca might like staying here with Giulia more than he'd like wandering around being homeless with him, their friendship might turn out to all be for naught.
Getting to this point actually takes a very long time, and goodness, it's not time well-spent: I'd make my usual observation that any movie with material this simplistic probably shouldn't be 100 minutes long, but the hell of it is that Luca actually shouldn't have been this simplistic in the first place, and it doesn't just lack urgency, but even any priorities; mostly, it's about the relationship between Luca and Alberto—this is, in fact, the only thing the movie has going for upwards of half an hour—which is cute and all, but it leaves a magical unseen world of merpeople to languish in the broadest and most grimly unimaginative strokes, almost sullen strokes, as the art and story development teams mechanically apply Pixar formula to a merfolk civilization, barely even implied to exist beyond the named characters, with some laughless jokes about herding fish like sheep (they say "baa"), which feels less like Pixar and more like some other studio's Pixar knock-off. If it's to get us into Luca's mindset— that Luca's world is dull as dishwater—congratulations, it's successful. (Uncle Ugo, presenting as a different species—and a much more monstrously gnarly one, with his anglerfish lamp and his translucent skin and Cohen's rasping voice emphasizing Ugo's distaste for the oxygenated shallows—is about the closest Luca gets to any idea, visual or conceptual, that latches ahold of you, but we never actually visit Ugo's depths until a wantonly underwhelming post-credits sequence.)
This shrugging approach births a film that, effectively, has pretty much just two locations, a single underwater farm that is, somehow, as underconceived as the homestead in The Good Dinosaur, and the aforementioned seaside town, which at least has more than three people who live in it (four, I forgot Stereotypically Supportive Grandma), though in no sense does it cohere as a place with any personality or vibrancy beyond "vaguely Italian," as opposed to a collection of hilly cobblestone streets upon which a third-act chase may be enacted in an exciting way. By no means are we dealing with a Lu Over the Wall here, nor a Children of the Sea. Luca even acknowledges that its locations are kinda boring; I presume this is why its most visually enticing sequences occupy Luca's own fantasyscape. These are nice if a little shoehorned in; as they belong to Luca they are, inevitably, almost always commercials for Vespa bikes. (Though the one where Luca daydreams of what he thinks space is, a higher and greater sea, populated by glowing anchovies for stars and an enormous fish for the moon, is pretty splendid and does not rely on an affection for a motor vehicle that has only ever been cool in Roman Holiday, and then mainly because Audrey Hepburn was riding it.*) Luca at least has real fun with its shapeshifting mechanic, no matter how much the annoying literalist in me despises it. (So, your shirt and your hair got dry the instant after you got out of the ocean, did they?) Otherwise, it's just sort of affable; Luca is almost entirely content to relax in the pared-down Pixar photorealism of its backgrounds, and in the very pared-down Pixar animation of its characters, which feels like the animators trying something and being ludicrously conservative simultaneously—Luca is as much a "let's use our computers and 3D modeling software to take cartoons back to 2D!" movie as anything I've seen since, well, a week ago, with The Mitchells vs. the Machines, but its admirable desire to return cartooniness to cartoons manifests in what looks for all the world like what would happen if very large computers made Cartoon Network shows. The nice thing is that it's more toward the top end of the CalArts mentality than the bottom; the mean thing is that with its choppy, sometimes stiff, borderline stop-motion-feeling movement, it looks like an artless Laika adaptation of Steven Universe.
But anyway, it's part of that whole hang-out deal, and it's pleasant to see Pixar trying something smaller-scale; there's the nominal threat of the sea monster-phobic town discovering Luca and Alberto's secret, but this exists almost entirely to motivate Luca's mom's overreaction, rather than to generate any sensation of danger while they navigate human society. It's not an offensive vibe, then, but also not very fascinating one. Luca and Alberto just aren't especially magnetic figures: Luca is the twerpy naïf, Alberto is the overconfident know-it-all poser who knows very little, and hence Luca is more-or-less The Little Mermaid with no proper villain and the main characters are Flounder and Scuttle. As "being like the tertiary sidekick characters in The Little Mermaid" suggests, they're underwritten and blandly stock, and defined by shticks more than personalities. The screenplay is inexplicably convinced that their Vespa cargo cult and Alberto's riffing upon the idea of a little naysaying voice in the back of your head named "Bruno" are each way more charming than they actually are, and run them into the ground very quickly. Shockingly, it isn't funnier after you've heard Alberto exhort Luca with a "silenzio, Bruno!" for the twentieth time. (Incidentally, Luca makes irritating resort to arbitrary Italian about every fifth line.)
It perks up substantially once Giulia and her father (Marco Baricelli) enter, finally doing something to complicate this relationship; however improbably, the comedic element of the film improves once Luca's parents emerge from the sea and start looking for their kid, mostly because, since they quickly realize they can't identify Luca anymore, they have to run around assaulting every small child they see by throwing water at them, and sometimes just throwing the children at the water (this is reasonably funny). The Portorosso Cup, likewise, imposes some agreeable plottiness onto it, besides just providing an opportunity for a chase, though by the same token I think I finally lost my patience with Luca's underbaked screenplay during the race, when Luca dons a diving suit to protect his identity during the swimming segment, and nobody points out that what it would look like to everyone else is that Luca just descended out of view, came back, and claimed victory like a marathon runner who took a cab.
It only awkwardly achieves anything dramatic about a full hour into its runtime, as tensions between Luca and Alberto reach a head and one betrays the other, and this at last adds a slightly compelling emotional ingredient, though I think it fails to comprehend just how nastily one of the boys has treated his pal. In any event, that film-ending Pixar chase is a fun little action sequence, all things considered, though it exists mostly to set up one of the most stunningly perfunctory denouements to a film's themes you might ever see. I mean, obviously: with its emphasis on passing in a world that might kill you if you drop the facade, it's an undeniable queer allegory, even if director Enrico Casarosa professes ignorance. Both "being an allegory" and "pretending it isn't" are unfashionable things in 2021, for good reason, but it's maybe the most intelligent thing about Luca anyway, at least till you get to the part where its story logic flies apart so it can get to the heartwarming Pride Month finale immediately. I mean, I don't need this to get heavy, but there's a beat missing here, is all; there's simply something unsatisfying and phony about a story, even a tolerance allegory (maybe especially a tolerance allegory) when that tolerance allegory decides that its conservative town's reaction to a couple of sea monsters—whose most salient "otherness" isn't being gay-coded but, you know, being sea monsters—shall be a "neat" with a side of "whatever." But, hey, it's better than The Good Dinosaur. Great job.
*The poster for which graces a Portorosso wall, pinning Luca down to 1953 or sometime soon thereafter, and which seems to think Audrey Hepburn is a redhead, which suggests that the digital background artist might have confused her with Katharine, which fuckin' A, man. Or it wants to conflate its ginger female lead with Princess Anne for very opaque reasons. There's evidently a boatload of references for Italian cinema fans; you guys can have at it.