An animated sea creature obsessed with human artifacts decides to leave the dull confines of their familiar underwater world and sets out for a new life on the surface, where they must face new challenges like learning to walk and communicate. No, we’re not talking about the 1989 Disney adaptation of The Little Mermaid, but the 2021 Pixar film Luca, now streaming on Disney+. While the similarities to the 80s musical classic only run skin deep, there is a sense of familiarity to Luca. Drawing inspiration from such diverse sources as the works of Federico Fellini and Hayao Miyazaki, the lofty artistic ambitions suggested by these cinematic forebearers come together in a fairly generic – and disarmingly literal – fish out of water story that is plenty entertaining for a single viewing, but lacks both the originality and complexity that make the best Pixar films as popular with adults as they are with children.
Luca Paguro (Jacob Tremblay) is a teenage sea monster living off the coast of Italy, who bears more than a casual resemblance to the mail order sea monkeys that used to be advertised in old Spider-Man comics. He wiles away his youth hoarding goatfish and dreaming of adventure, but his parents Daniela and Lorenzo (Maya Rudolph and Jim Gaffigan) forbid him from visiting the surface for fear of the “land monsters” who terrorize the world above. One day, Luca ventures out of the water and meets Alberto (Jack Dylan Glazer), another teenage sea monster who has been living on the surface as a teenage human. Alberto teaches Luca that sea monsters have the ability to become human when they are completely dry, and the boys become fast friends who spend their days playing on land and planning to explore the rest of the wide world in front of them.
When Luca’s parents discover what he has been doing with this free time, they try to send him to live with is Uncle Ugo (Sacha Baron Cohen) in the dark depths of the bottom dwellers. Luca runs away and travels with Alberto to the nearby city of Portorosso, where they befriend an actual human girl named Giulia (Emma Berman) and her father, Massimo (Marco Barricelli). The boys soon come up with a scheme to join Giulia’s team in the upcoming Portorosso Cup triathalon, hoping to win enough money to buy a Vespa scooter that will carry them on their globe-trotting adventures. From here, the story strikes out on a fairly formulaic path: the kids engage in a series of 80s-style training montages, the parents do a well intentioned yet fundamentally inept job of trying to rescue their children from certain peril, and the wispy-mustached teen villain does his best to sabotage his opponents so he can retain his title as champion. Though the voice cast and beautiful animation keep the story fun and entertaining, it feels much more like a cookie cutter Hollywood blockbuster than a true Pixar movie. Even Luca and Alberto’s wide-eyed fantasies about the Vespa – “the best things humans ever made – play less like a nod to the authentic Italian culture of the 1950s and 1960s than a product placement so blatant that it would put the likes of Transformers 4 to shame.
As generic as the story may seem, the thing that really keeps Luca from rising to the level of Pixar classic is the rather simplistic morality that underlies the film. Whether it’s the idea that some people are just born to be better than others (The Incredibles), that sadness is sometimes good for you (Inside Out), or that even ghosts are haunted by the specter of death (Coco), Pixar is always at its best when its films are driven by messages that seem a little too complicated for a children’s movie, but bring with them a breath of refreshing honesty that is badly needed.
Luca at best flirts with unconventional life lessons through passing comments like “Don’t look at the sun…just kidding, definitely look at it,” or “if you keep the mouth open, the whale carcass go in,” the earnest lessons tend more along the lines of “be yourself,” “accept people for who they are,” and “school is good.” All positive lessons, to be sure, but hardly anything you couldn’t learn from a couple hours of Sesame Street.
Verdict: 4 out of 5 Stars
To borrow the old adage about bad work by a genius being better than the best work by most people, a bad Pixar movie is still better than most movies by other animation studios. Though Luca isn’t likely to be many people’s go-to favorite from the Pixar collection, it’s an enjoyable romp filled with fun characters, beautiful animation, and an amazing soundtrack. Kids will love the magical transformations, and adults will be won over by the adorable “kids raised underwater say the darndest things” humor – at least on a first viewing. After that, they’ll at least have a pretty easy time tuning out the more forgettable bits once the kids have re-watched it to death.