Pixar, now in its 26th year as an animation powerhouse, its 35th year as first adopters of computer animation and its 42nd year as graphics pioneers, enjoys enough clout that if the studio so chose, their next major release could be about anthropomorphic farts wrestling with existential dread over their too-brief lifespan. Thankfully, the prestige has yet to go to their heads (or other regions of the body) and they remain invested in telling stories that, if not always unique per se, come in unique packaging. Take Soul, for instance, the most recent addition to Pixar’s Oscar trophy case, a film about dying where the hapless Black protagonist’s body becomes occupied by a firmly white voice: The veneer is “new,” but the concept is well-tread and the execution falters.
Now take Luca, their latest movie, which takes the foundation of Hans Christian Andersen and builds upon it a gallery of delicately curated cultural influences ranging from Studio Ghibli to Aardman Animations to the movies of Luca Guadagnino to boilerplate Italian fairy tales: The particulars are all familiar, but freshened up by the pairings. The threads that first-time director Enrico Casarosa, Pixar Senior Story and Creative Artist Mike Jones and screenwriter Jesse Andrews weave together throughout Luca are endless, but over time grow tangled. It’s less an issue of where the team has sourced their inspiration, and more an issue with how those inspirations collide. Their skeins don’t compliment one another.
They could, of course. But Casarosa, Jones, and Andrews appear out of sync with either themselves or their material—maybe both. All that rich goodness on paper, the many colorful pieces that compose the movie’s whole, grows muddled on screen: The plotting is crushed down, the pacing is rushed and character motivations change on a dime for the convenience of narrative, assuming they’re well-established at all. Luca banks on broad adorableness and, granted, there are worse things that a beautifully animated film about boyhood, budding friendships, sea monsters and the youthful desire for agency could be than “adorable.” But Luca, instead of just adorable, comes frustratingly close to being another thing entirely: Precise instead of wandering, decisive instead of dithering, substantial instead of cute, fluffy and trivial.
The film concerns Luca (Jacob Tremblay), a 13-year-old merman herding goatfish under the waters off a charming old world Italian coastal town, Portorosso. He’s a prototypical Pixar character, dissatisfied with his lot in life and in search of self-actualization that can only be found in the world beyond his door. When he meets free-spirited Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), another fish-boy who lives alone and by his own rules, and discovers that he takes on human form when out of the water, Luca’s path to freedom becomes clear. He and Alberto pose as vagabonds visiting Portorosso; cross the local bully, Ercole (Saverio Raimondo); befriend outsider weird-girl Giulia (Emma Berman); and sign up for the Portorosso Cup, a mettle-testing triathlon throughout the village that rewards the victor with coin—enough to buy a Vespa and go globe-trotting.
Luca’s whimsical synopsis pans out according to the Pixar playbook, differentiated from other films in their canon through setting and aesthetic. Even a watchful viewer might, at times, forget that they’re watching a CG-animated film and convince themselves they’re watching other forms of animation stitched into one. The precision of CG fades, the details grow soft and Casarosa’s visuals take on the gentle spontaneity of a Ghibli film (like, say, Ponyo, which despite the obvious homage to Porco Rosso reads as Luca’s closest cousin in the studio’s portfolio). And the characters, too, at times bear the plasticine features of Nick Park’s stop-motion claymation figures, giving them tactility that contrasts nicely with the dreamier qualities of its Ghibli references and nods to Federico Fellini. Luca might be the first kids film to name-drop La Strada’s Gelsomina, which is a win for Fellini diehards but a head-scratcher overall given her fate.
Each component is suffused with inescapable wonderment: Luca’s reveries send him to the moon on the back of a motorscooter, and his underwater adventures shimmer with oceanic splendor. Corralling dopey bug-eyed fish along the belly of a sun-speckled Italian shoreline frankly sounds grand, which is easy to say for a longtime biped who needs air to live and can’t swim without getting winded. These are appealing fantasies, but Luca’s hurried storytelling lets them all down. The film clocks in at a brisk 82 minutes (officially 95, but that counts credits), which actually feels like the right amount of time to let its tale unfold. But the way Casarosa crashes from scene to scene with the elegance of a thrashing beached whale makes Luca feel short, when the real problem is that it’s unfocused and leaves little room for each beat to breathe.
When Luca takes his first steps on two feet, he trips, stumbles and falls flat on his face. He tries again, again and again. Eventually, he gets the mechanics down, but until he does, he’s proving Albert Einstein right. He’s also serving a metaphor for Luca’s own shortcomings. The film tries, gamely but awkwardly, to find a rhythm that matches its ambitions as both entertainment for children, pop art for adults and a coordinated blend of the varying cultures its authors have drawn from. There’s a long pedigree for Casarosa, Andrews and Jones to live up to. Mostly what they manage is sweetness, and so sweetness must suffice. A little more body would have been better.
Director: Enrico Casarosa
Writers: Jesse Andrews, Mike Jones
Starring: Jacob Tremblay, Jack Dylan Grazer, Emma Berman, Maya Rudolph, Jim Gaffigan, Sandy Martin, Saverio Raimondo, Sacha Baron Cohen
Release Date: June 18, 2021 (Disney+)
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.