Reviewing Luca, Pixar’s latest animated feature, sadly leads to a case of damning with faint praise. For most other animation houses around the world, describing a film as ‘reasonably good’ or ‘moderately entertaining’ might be a case for celebration: if nothing else, the fruits of years of labour have at least resulted in a film that people might want to see. For Pixar, however, the bar sits inordinately higher. There are a few studios around the world – Studio Ghibli and Laika both come to mind – where the standard of the company’s earlier works is so high and their reputation so glowing that ‘reasonably good’ seems a comparative indictment.
Enrico Casarosa makes his feature directing debut with Luca, after his 2011 short La Luna captured a lot of acclaim when screened before Pixar’s Brave (2012). The design aesthetic of that short is evident here, particularly in Luca‘s luminescent dream sequences.
Luca (Jacob Tremblay) is a young sea monster living off the Italian coast. One day, disobeying his parents’ instructions, he steps onto a small island and discovers that out of water he transforms into a human boy. With fellow transformed sea monster Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), he ventures to the nearby town of Portorosso to explore and experience the human world.
The core problem with Luca is that it simply feels overly familiar. Fish out of water stories are a dime a dozen, as are those where monsters and other creatures hide themselves among human society. The various story beats that fill out Luca all work to a well-rehearsed formula, and are plotted in such a predictable arrangement that nothing will come as a surprise. This is not necessarily a problem; many of the world’s best animated features follow well-known patterns and story tropes. Pixar in particular has successfully spun these stories into striking arrangements via setting and character: a child’s toys come to life, a rat has a penchant for fine dining, or a cleaning robot dreams of something greater. Fishlike creatures from the sea wanting to experience life among humans lacks the impact I have come to expect. In many ways Luca is effectively just a cinque terre spin on The Little Mermaid. There are additional little touches and sparks of creativity, but that core Pixar energy feels gone. It is a bit like watching a company slide into middle age.
The miserable part of all of this is that a little more than a year ago I reviewed Pixar’s Onward and wrote something very similar to what I have written here. Back then I complained: ‘This is not a bad film by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a lazy one. Its concept is loose and under-cooked. Its narrative is predictable and easy to guess in advance. It will entertain plenty of people, but it probably will not entertain them quite as much as it should.’ Literally every word could comfortably apply to Luca.
The design work varies – Portorosso and its various Italian inhabitants is charmingly designed, with a fairly bold and appealing aesthetic. The underwater elements of the film simply do not work for me; the sea monsters in particular feel rather garish and weak. The simple, bold visuals also pale in comparison to other, better Pixar films. A climactic bicycle chase demonstrates an energy and a visual storytelling of a particularly high standard, but by that stage it feels like a case of too little, too late.
The bottom line: children will broadly be entertained, and many adults will probably find it fun enough to watch along as well. This is, however, no Monsters Inc or Ratatouille. This is not Wall-E or Inside Out. It is a competently made and watchable children’s film, but when you know what the creatives at Pixar can achieve it cannot help but seem a disappointment. I am left wondering, did Disney side-line this from theatrical to their streaming service for a reason? It almost seems like they found Luca as disposable as I did.