The latest installment in Pixar’s Disney+ era output, Luca, will catch many viewers off guard with its leisurely pace and lack of action, but this is very much by design. A new turn for the studio that brought us talking toys and personified emotions, Luca is about sea monsters who turn into humans when they dry off. Yet somehow it’s not the film’s unique premise that makes it original.
Director Enrico Casarosa, previously known for his highly-acclaimed short film La Luna, goes for the episodic approach with his feature-length debut. Set off the Italian coast, a young sea monster named Luca (Jacob Tremblay) is bemused by a trail of human relics found near his underwater home. He discovers that they’ve been collected by a fellow sea monster of a similar age named Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), who lives in a stone tower on the surface.
Curious, despite his mother warning him of the dangers of going up there, Luca follows Alberto to the shore to discover that, once above water, he turns into a human. From there, Luca and Alberto become fast friends and Alberto tells him all he knows about the “land monsters” (aka humans) and their world. Amazed at the scope of possibilities as a human, Luca returns each day to hang out with Alberto and use more of the human devices. He quickly realizes his dream of riding on a Vespa, which ends up as the MacGuffin that drives most of the plot.
When Luca’s parents discover what he’s been up to, they make plans for him to move in with his uncle in the deep depths of the ocean. So instead he runs away with Alberto to the nearest human town of Portorosso where they plan to blend in as human children. There they meet Giulia (Emma Burman), who trains them to compete in the annual Portorosso Cup race, in which they hope to earn enough money to buy a Vespa for themselves.
Luca is a strange case in that it deviates from the typical Pixar recipe of a protagonist who’s on a journey to find his or her way back home. Here, our character finds himself caught up in a new realm, as expected, but uniquely seems to press pause on his life to enjoy it. The only Pixar film you can draw even a remote similarity to is Cars, another spiritual journey that becomes less storyboarded and more observational. Coincidentally (or not), Casarosa served as the story artist on the 2006 film. But where the story in Cars still saunters, intentionally, towards an end goal, Luca occasionally finds itself trying to leave its plot behind.
This is difficult to do, as the 1950s Italian cinema stylings that it’s paying homage to, while finding an audience among American cinephiles, don’t scream “action and adventure” the way modern family animation does. But once again Pixar has effectively opened the door to an entire genre of art and moviemaking through their own accessible pastiche.
To finish the comparison, Luca is 15 minutes shorter than Cars and has much less plot to tell. And Cars, for all intents and purposes, could’ve been told with human characters instead of wide-eyed anthropomorphic automobiles (but who would want that?). Luca is rare in the world of Pixar in that it actually requires its characters to be human – or some version of them.
The movie also has an actual villain in Ercole Visconti (Saverio Raimondo), the reigning Portorosso Cup champion who continuously, and formulaically, tries to foil Luca, Alberto, and Giulia’s efforts to beat him, while simultaneously participating in the town-wide effort of catching reported sea monsters off the coast. This is why nobody in town can know Luca and Alberto are sea monsters – including Giulia. Ercole is oddly placed, since it often feels like he’s only there to prevent Luca’s story from unfolding more organically, even if he’s necessary in taking this film into its third act.
The most interesting part of Luca is how the film matches all the typical traits of a quaint dramedy (think Roman Holiday, the 1951 film often alluded to here), yet becomes infused with a heavy dose of magic realism so the stakes are raised to add a refreshing sense of purpose. Yet unlike something such as Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, which is similarly deceptive with its fantasy elements, the high concept in Luca is neither surprising nor appealingly off-putting. We’re not given the by-the-numbers story only for a twist to get thrown into the mix by the 2nd act to subvert our expectations.
No. Rather, the film leads off with its hook. We see in the very first sequence that Luca is a sea monster, as well as what happens when he comes to the surface. The surprise in this movie comes from the actual inclusion of the familiar elements.
For every broad stroke that Casarosa goes for, he’s still always tied to the subtleties that his concept requires – torn between telling a stream of conscious, yet nuanced story, and needing to include details of a sea monster-turned-human trying to get accepted in a world where he’s an outsider. This clash prevents him and his writers Jesse Andrews and Mike Jones from really going wild with the plot and developing the relationships inside of it as well. They become forced to trim the fat and abide by more typical filmmaking conventions on a granular level.
It’s also hard not to feel like the studio’s intent on keeping the film’s themes and subtext ambiguous affected the finished product, inhibiting its ability to expand on the ins and outs of these characters and take them into authentic directions. Often the director even rushes through logical thought processes in favor of pacing
Likewise, Casarosa doesn’t quite set up his title character well enough prior to the inciting incident of turning human. Luca keeps insisting that he’s different and weird, but we never see how that’s true in his initial habitat – only in the human world where (of course) he’s going to be different. We see that Luca is sheltered and maybe a bit of a rascal, but we should be able to know his essence after only a scene or two.
The broad childlike wonder might be what Casarosa is going for here in order to stretch Luca’s emotional reach and relatability, but as our protagonist we want to know more. Alberto, on the other hand, definitely has some secrets. As soon as we meet him, we can tell there’s something a little off and mysterious about him, although it’s hard to pinpoint what that is since both he and Luca are strangers in a strange place, so they both act peculiar at all times.
Alberto serves as a guide for our hero, with wisdom about the human world that begins as harmless misinterpretation (e.g. he tells Luca that the stars in the sky are fish), but as Luca takes the time to really learn about the universe, Alberto feels that his friend will soon have no need for him anymore. This all stems from the character’s complicated childhood, which gets revealed to us soon enough. Over the course of the film Alberto becomes possessive of Luca and jealous of his friendship with Giulia, who inspires our title character to want to go to school.
Despite the type of inherent flaws that come anytime a filmmaker tries something new, Casarosa has constructed quite a beautiful film about the wonder of childhood and the catharsis of going through the awkwardness of it with people by your side. The world out there is scary, indeed, especially when you’re no longer a child and not yet an adult. Not all of us are fortunate enough to find our people at that exact time, but those of us who are will look back years later and see how important it was that we had someone to help us get through it.
Although Luca isn’t perfect, it’s also exactly how you go about telling a story about a platonic relationship between two boys, while simultaneously challenging the mindset of a society that refuses to allow for two sensitive male characters to be this close as friends. The storyboard works despite itself and the broad strokes are built out of an original framework that it’s able to overcome the lack of depth early on to reveal a deceptive bond between two friends. Still, we wish the filmmakers had focused more on who Luca was before he met Alberto so that we’d be able to see his change more prominently later on.
However, the more you see Alberto as the main focus, the more you can view Luca’s generic persona as serving the greater purpose of immersing us into an allegory that focuses on the role we play in changing others, rather than simply focusing on the effect they have on us. Luca isn’t about lifelong friendships, but momentary ones that have a lifelong impact; crossing paths with someone at the right time in our own development where we needed them the most. And most of the time we can later realize how they needed us just as much, if not more.