Despite the amount that I’ve been covering new Disney movies in the past few months, this is the most disillusioned I’ve been with the House of Mouse. Disney is pretty much the face of pop culture now and I couldn’t care less about nearly anything they’re making anymore. Star Wars feels like a lifeless husk with all of its originally sanded off for marketability. I haven’t bothered watching any of the Marvel shows nor do I intend to watch Black Widow. Even their animated and live-action fare feels hollow and like they’re spinning their wheels remaking and repeating ideas instead of actually innovating. Yet I will always clarify that no matter how much I disparage the company, most of my criticism is not directed at Pixar, and that’s true now for their latest animated movie, Luca.
Pixar has always been a unique entity in the realm of Disney since, when they began, they were the only game in CG animation. Pixar movies visually looked different and usually followed more subdued plots, less focused on high emotions and tons of energy, and more intimate and personal ideas. Pixar movies just feel different and stand apart from the crowd. Or rather, stood apart from the crowd. Over the past decade, as Disney shifted to CG animated for all of its animated features, Pixar has been less and less unique, now feeling like just another Disney animated feature.
Last year’s Soul was an excellent movie, one that really reminded me why I love Pixar as much as I do. Luca does not reach those heights. It’s fine, but nothing special. It’s not soulless, but it’s nothing that you haven’t seen before. Sad to say, but Luca feels like just another Disney movie.
Director: Enrico Casarosa
Release Date: June 18, 2021 (Disney+)
Luca takes place in the tiny village Portorosso, which is along the Italian Riveria. The film follows a young sea monster named Luca (Jacob Tremblay), who lives in the ocean but eventually has your typical Disney desire to see what more there is to the world outside of the ocean, so he travels onto land to see what there is to find. Thankfully, when he steps onto shore, his body adjusts and hides his sea monster persona and he quickly makes friends with Antonio (Jack Dylan Grazer), another sea monster who lives onshore and loves the human world, and Giulia (Emma Berman), a human who is trying to win a local competition to prove that she can. Yet Luca is constantly afraid of what will happen if people discover that he’s not actually human and what they may do to him because of it.
I will say this about Luca; It breaks the mold from traditional Pixar fare. It’s not a radical departure, but most Pixar films usually center on the “buddy road-trip” trope as we watch two people with not a lot in common work together for some specific goal. There is a bit of that here — Luca and Antonio want to help Giulia win a competition so they can get enough money to buy a Vespa — but it’s a clear goal that at least varies up the traditional Pixar routine. It’s more about watching our heroes get into some strange misadventures during their time on the surface than putting our heroes on some personal journey of growth.
And in those moments, the movie is pretty fun. It’s nothing immensely enjoyable and it won’t make you laugh out loud, but it’s pleasant. Luca and Antonio are likable characters and you do feel the friendship between the two. Comparisons have been made by fans online to Call Me By Your Name, a movie that is also set around the Italian Riveria and serves as a romance between two young men but don’t go into Luca expecting anything of that caliber. According to the director, those comparisons are not justified, despite the subtle homoerotic undertones between our two lead boys.
If they did go that route, then the plot device of having the sea monsters hide who they really are out of fear of societal repercussions could have direct connotations to real-life members of the LGBTQIA+ community going through that exact same struggle. But nope, it’s just a coincidence. I mean, I won’t fault the movie for not going in that direction, but instead of having any kind of subtext, there’s nothing really to read into at all in this movie.
Like I said earlier, Luca and Antonio are charming characters, but there’s no real throughline for whatever the movie is trying to tell. We’re told that the people of Portorosso hate all sea monsters and will brutally hunt them down, but that really isn’t used to inform anything about the world. There is no hatred between the two races or anything complex, it’s just a generic “we hate the monsters because they’re different.” I mean, it approaches themes of inclusivity and not rejecting others based on physical appearances, which is a decent moral to have, but I’m stretching to even make a claim like that since the movie simply doesn’t really bother to establish that as a moral.
The movie makes plenty of odd decisions that left me scratching my head why they decided to go the way they did with it. We have one of the most bizarre antagonists I’ve ever seen in a Disney movie, one who may or may not be a teenager who takes glee in between children in meaningless competitions and just baffles me whenever he appears onscreen. He feels like the kind of antagonist that you would see in an Illumination movie and not a Pixar one. He’s just so odd and doesn’t gel with any reality our characters are living in.
The film itself just lacks a strong identity, not just as a movie in general, but as a Pixar film. If I had never heard of this movie before, I would have told you this was a movie done by Illumination or Sony Pictures. Usually, Pixar films have something notable to them. If it’s not the plot, then it’s something noteworthy about the animation. I remember in the lead-up to The Incredibles 2 just how blown away people were by the attention to detail in the fabrics of Mr. Incredible’s shirt. I thought early on that maybe this film would show off how Pixar tackles animating water once more given that it’s one of the most notoriously hard things to animate, but they don’t even do that. This is just a simple movie about two friends hanging around a small Italian village.
And it delivers on that front, don’t get me wrong, but let’s just say I can see why Disney chose not to release this in theaters. It’s absolutely disheartening to the people at Pixar since their last two movies haven’t been screened in theaters. For Soul, I can understand that given that we were in the midst of arguably the worst time of the pandemic, but with restrictions lightening up it’s just a bummer that Luca didn’t get a theatrical release. Cruella got one, and that’s not even going to turn a profit at the box office. And for the record, I do think that Luca is better than Cruella because at least this movie is able to deliver a fun and easygoing experience.
It’s so weird that one of the greatest animation houses in the world turned in a product as okay as this one. It’s fine without any real fanfare. It delivers a simple little film that feels targeted towards a younger demographic than what I feel Pixar usually aims for. I can’t say that I disliked watching Luca though because as a smaller more comedic movie, I think it manages to be a good time. Maybe it was a fault of mine to expect more from Pixar, but Luca just barely manages to come out on a good note.