Starring: Jacob Tremblay (Room), Jack Dylan Grazer (Shazam!), Emma Berman, Saverio Raimondo, Maya Rudolph (Bridesmaids), Marco Barricelli, Jim Gaffigan (Away We Go)
Director: Enrico Casarosa (La Luna)
Writers: Jesse Andrews (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) & Mike Jones (Soul)
Runtime: 1 hour 35 minutes
Release Date: 18th June (Disney+)
Pixar can’t seem to catch a break lately when it comes to cinemas. First Onward bombed and saw its theatrical run cut short due to COVID-19, and then Soul never even saw a general cinema release in most countries and debuted instead on Disney+. Now despite cinemas across the world opening up and having done dual theatrical/PVOD releases for films like Raya and the Last Dragon and Cruella, Disney has once again opted for Pixar’s latest to skip theatres and debut it as an exclusive on their streaming platform. Whilst a treat for Disney+ users and those who don’t feel ready to head back to cinemas, it is frankly baffling that Luca isn’t getting any major theatrical distribution in most markets. Beyond excuses about COVID restrictions and needing more exclusive content to boost subscriptions, could there be another reason why this filmhas been singled out as the exception in Disney’s new release strategy? Maybe, but if it has anything to do with the perceived quality of the film, they’d be wrong as Luca is an adorable and heartwarming coming-of-age fable that I would have loved to experience on the big screen.
Within its first few minutes, it’s clear that Luca is a slightly different beast to most of Pixar’s output. It certainly has a similar attention to detail, sense of humour and emotional resonance, but it is a noticeably smaller and more intimate film than anything they’ve made in years. The plot and tone are instead far more reminiscent of Japanese animated films; in fact, the best way to sum up the film is as a mash-up of Kiki’s Delivery Service and Wolf Children. The fantastical elements are very downplayed, the story mostly takes place in and around a small town, and there’s no evil mastermind or world-ending threat at the climax. The movie is really as simple as two young boys bonding over the course of a summer, and the whole shapeshifting sea creature business is only there for conflict and subtext.
Luca isn’t the most ground-breaking tale thematically, with familiar messages about being true to yourself and not living in fear of judgement, but it’s handled with tact and doesn’t try to make it too specific an allegory. It’s refreshing to see an American children’s film take such a relaxed and down-to-earth approach instead of yet another Campbellian adventure story or genre pastiche and, whilst it clearly takes influence from the likes of Hayao Miyazaki (I mean, the film’s setting is a blatant reference to Porco Rosso), it doesn’t come off like a poor Western imitation. Its lower stakes, however, doesn’t mean the movie is slow or overly contemplative. On the contrary, the whole film breezes by in less than ninety minutes excluding credits and, if anything, the quick pacing leads to certain story and character beats feeling a little rushed. It’s honestly such a charming film with interesting characters and a gorgeous world that I wouldn’t have minded if it slowed down more, if only to soak it in and enjoy its chill atmosphere a little while longer.
Pixar have rarely ever put a huge emphasis on celebrity stunt casting, instead simply trying to find the best actors for the roles whether they be stars or not, and that certainly still tracks in Luca. The roles of Luca and Alberto feel like they were tailor-made to fit Jacob Tremblay and Jack Dylan Grazer, as they excel beyond words as our wide-eyed, trepidatious protagonist and his boastful new friend respectively. Grazer in particular does tremendously, managing to convey so much about Alberto’s insecurities and bravado through little vocal ticks and odd inflections; these are the kind of details you usually only get out of career voice actors. Emma Berman is adorable as the plucky go-getter Giulia, Saviero Raimondo balances the line between threatening and pathetic to great comedic effect as local bully Ercole, Marco Barricelli does a lot with very little as Giulia’s gruff but doting father Massimo, and even Sacha Baron Cohen gets in a lot of laughs in his brief turn as the unnerving Uncle Ugo. Maya Rudolph and Jim Gaffigan are fun too as Luca’s bickering parents and their subplot is hilarious at moments, but in comparison to the Studio Ghibli style of the rest of the movie, their scenes do feel like they’ve come from a more typical American kids movie. The cast is rounded out by a lot of fun background characters, most of whom have little to no dialogue, which helps the Portorosso feel much more like a living, breathing place.
Whilst Pixar certainly has a distinctive house look that most of their films stick to, it’s great whenever they stretch out and experiment a little. Luca is one of the most distinctive-looking films the studio has ever made, adopting a more exaggerated animation style and a watercolour palette that fits perfectly with the seaside setting of the film. The design of the sea monsters and their underwater world has some cool distinctive features, like the way the creatures shift forms or the translucent skin of Uncle Ugo’s anglerfish-inspired look, but the most jaw-dropping moments actually come from its human environments. The town of Portorosso is wonderfully realised and looks gorgeous in every frame, bringing to life the Italian Riviera in an exaggerated but authentic way; it certainly made me want to go visit. This is further accentuated by the film’s music, with Dan Romer’s score blending Italian-inspired guitar with familiar Pixar whimsy whilst incorporating tunes from a wide variety of Italian rock, pop and opera. It’s just utterly charming from start to finish, and the cosy, friendly ambiance of the movie just made it that much easier to relax while watching it.
Luca is far from the best film Pixar has ever made, but it’s a welcome breath of fresh air for the studio and Western animation in general. Whilst fans of Studio Ghibli and its ilk won’t see anything too new here, it’s still fantastic to see a mainstream animated movie have some modesty and put atmosphere and theme front and centre. That said, it’s still colourful and exciting enough to entertain the youngest audiences, and I hope it inspires more families to look beyond the major American studios and pick up the gorgeous array of international films that inspired it. The summer movie season is so often dominated by explosive blockbusters, but Luca feels like a movie made for the summer itself: chilling out, having fun in the sun, and enjoying the little things. I only wish I could have experienced it like most summer movies and seen in it in an actual cinema.
FINAL VERDICT: 8.5/10