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Non-Review Review: Luca

There’s an appealing low-stakes gentleness to Luca. In fact, Luca might be Pixar’s first hangout movie.

The film tells the story the eponymous sea monster. The young boy lives off the Italian Riviera, tending to the local fish and dreaming of the world above the surface. One day, following a chance encounter with a more adventurous boy named Alberto, Luca discovers that he can change form when dry. Outside the ocean, Luca and Alberto can pass as human children. Against his family’s better judgment and aware of what might happen if he is discovered, Luca decides to make the most of life above the waves.

“I wanna be where the people are…”

This description makes Luca sound like a retread of The Little Mermaid. That’s not an entirely unfair point of comparison. Both Luca and The Little Mermaid are stories about young characters who dare to dream of a life beyond the underwater world they know. However, Luca has a very distinct mood and ambiance. Luca is not really plot-driven. It lacks a central villain like Ursula or stakes as overt as the terms of Ursula’s spell. Instead, Luca is much more interested in the smaller details that mark a wonderful childhood summer.

Luca is undeniably minor Pixar, but that doesn’t mean it’s especially shallow.

Many Pixar movies are effectively buddy adventure movies. A lot of the studio’s output is built around the story the two unlikely or mismatched partners who find themselves – often through mistake and mishap – embarking on epic journeys or high-stakes gambits. There’s nothing wrong with this approach to storytelling. It is a Hollywood staple for a reason. The buddy adventure movie is tried and tested formula, and the studio often finds interesting angles on the template and ties that familiar structure to deeper themes with greater resonance.

However, it’s still a fixture of the company’s output. Buzz and Woody are exiled from Andy’s room in Toy Story, and have to find their way home. Woody and Bo Peep have to rescue Forky in Toy Story 4. Marlon and Dory have to rescue Nemo together in Finding Nemo. WALL-E and EVE find themselves saving humanity in WALL-E. Carl and Russell discover that you are never too old or too young to have an epic adventure in Up. Joy and Sadness come to an understanding of each other as they try to make their way back to the control room in Inside Out.

Ice cream of the crop?

Luca has a superficially similar structure. It is another mismatched buddy movie. Luca is a young boy who is both intrigued by and terrified of the outside world, while Alberto is both more confident and more jaded about the world in which they find themselves. Luca is curious and cautious, Alberto is confident and carefree. Naturally, the movie explores the complexity of that relationship, how the two enrich and sometimes even infuriate each other, but also how they each have something to show or teach the other.

The big difference between Luca and the other Pixar movies that operate in a similar vein is that Luca isn’t really a buddy adventure movie. It’s more of a hangout film. While the film has a very relaxed pace, it’s notable that Luca and Alberto end up above the water in the film’s opening fifteen minutes. Once that happens, the two boys don’t necessarily want to go anywhere with any real urgency. Sure, the kids decide that they want a scooter and so enter a local relay race, but Luca is largely quite relaxed in its plotting and pacing.

Making a splash.

There’s no real ticking clock in Luca. There’s no deadline for the boys to hit. The film isn’t obsessed with their training for the relay competition, and there’s no fear that something truly horrible might happen if they loose. There’s no urgency in Luca. They boys aren’t racing against time like Ian and Barley trying to get one last day with their father in Onward or Joe trying to get back into his body in time for a potnetially life-altering jazz performance that very evening in Soul.

Of course, there are some stakes. Luca and Alberto are keenly aware of local harpoon-wielding monster hunters. Luca’s mother aggressively asserts that humanity is “here to do murders.” However, the most immediate threats facing the pair are the locally bully who sees them as competition to his status as a big fish in a small pond and Luca’s pursuant parents who follow him to the surface to take their child home. Luca has perhaps the lowest stakes of any Pixar movie since Monsters University, and that was a prequel about two established characters going to college.

The Vespa Days of Our Lives…

The production team have cited the films of directors like Frederico Fellini or Hayao Miyazaki as key influences on Luca, and that shines through. The Italian seaside town that Luca and Alberto visit is even named Portorosso in homage to Miyazaki’s Porco Rosso. It’s possible to draw a clear line between the relaxed ambiance of Luca and Hayao Miyazaki’s tales of childhood wonder in My Neighbour Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service and even Spirited Away. These aren’t urgent stories about immediate threats. They are instead portraits of children deciding who they want to be.

This gentleness is striking. It’s hard not be moved by Luca’s curiosity and wonder, to feel some measure of empathy for the young boy who confesses, “I never go anywhere. I just dream about it.” It helps that Jacob Tremblay brings a compelling innocence to the character. Luca is not a complicated character, just as Luca is not a complicated story, but there’s a universality to his desire that resonates strongly. The tenderness works in large part because it’s not overwhelmed with bombast and melodrama. This is a story of a childhood summer, closer to Stand By Me than it is to War Games.

A monster summer.

Luca is undeniably “minor” Pixar, closer to something like Brave or Onward than it is to Inside Out or Up. However, there’s something charming in the movie’s embrace of this smaller scale. The film hits the ground running, establishing its rules and its premise very quickly, allowing it to then just luxuriate in the little details. Luca spends almost as much time on the title character learning to walk as it does explaining his background and mythology of its sea creatures. Luca is refreshingly free of prophecies or curses, of demons and spells, of exposition and explanation.

It also looks gorgeous. After a quarter of a century, it’s easy to take Pixar’s animation for granted, but Luca looks gorgeous. The film’s use of blues, greens and yellows gives it a suitably summery ambiance and an enchantingly chilled out vibe. This is a world of smooth bends and curves rather than sharp lines and edges, making it feel deliberately and effectively cartoonish in a way that falls on the right side of childhood. Dan Romer’s score is particularly effective, channelling the vibe of Ennio Morricone.

Riding high.

However there’s still a surprisingly emotional heft to the film. Luca is ultimately the story of two kids spending the summer together, discovering themselves and the world around them while deciding what kind of lives they want to lead. It’s not too hard to read the subtext in all this, in this story of a young boy confused about his identity who can “pass” as normal, but who fears being exposed as a freak and being hunted or exiled for what makes him different.

Luca never belabours the point, but lands it strongly enough. “Some people, they’ll never accept him,” his grandmother advises hie parents. “But some people will. And he seems to know how to find the good ones.” Of course, this gets into thorny territory about reducing these sorts of stories to metaphor and allegory – the reality that it’s easier to make a family film about a young fish monster than it is to make a movie about a young boy realising that he’s not straight.

All’s square.

This is a fair criticism, but it’s a systemic problem that one film is highly unlikely to resolve on its own terms. At the same time, it’s hard to ignore. Luca would be stronger if brought some of its subtext to the surface, if it made that connection overt rather than burying it in subtext. Nevertheless, the script from Jesse Andrews and Mike Jones is sweet, sincere and clever. There’s a lot of charm to the movie, particularly in its stillness and gentleness.

Luca might lack the depth of Pixar’s best films, but there’s still something at work beneath its polished surface.

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