The medium of animation has advanced greatly in the past few years, having gifted audiences with mature, compelling stories that put their live-action counterparts to shame. Pixar Animation Studios has long been at the forefront of this movement; here though, they’ve reneged on their recent form and produced a picture that’s decidedly lowkey, yet palatable all the same.
On the sea floor, not far from the coast of Italy lives a family of amphibious monsters, among them the bright, curious Luca (Jacob Tremblay) who longs to know what lies above. Luca’s inquisitive nature eventually gets the better of him, as he joins a fellow creature of the marine, Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer) in venturing to the surface, there discovering that his colourful, scaly body can morph into that of a human being.
Luca and Alberto make the most of their land-based forms, journeying to the coastal village of Portorosso where they befriend Giulia (Emma Berman), the daughter of a local fisherman, Massimo (Marco Barricelli). With Giulia’s guidance, the two ocean-farers interact with the town’s residents, sample Italian delicacies, and learn about the world beyond; yet they also face many perils, including teenage bullies, a cantankerous feline, and the populace’s unyielding prejudice against aquatic lifeforms.
As with Soul, Pixar’s previous feature-length film, Luca has shunned a “traditional” cinema-first release to appear exclusively on the Disney+ streaming service. Some have viewed this move as a devaluing of the Pixar brand; others still consider it to be undermining the theatrical experience. Whatever the case, it’s a decision that showed great foresight on Disney’s part, since a surge of coronavirus cases and lockdowns here in Australia means that theatrical releases are now untenable, leaving streaming as the only viable option.
Just as well too, because Luca is ideally suited for the kind of escapism that everybody so desperately craves right now. Like every Pixar release, the animation and rendering are flawless, with a quaintness to the designs of Portorosso, and its surrounds looking particularly beautiful. More mesmerising still are the scenes of Alberto and Luca enjoying typical seaside activities, with their cliff-jumping and swims in the ocean being fun and surprisingly cathartic – it’s almost like being on holiday.
That easy-going nature is present throughout, for Luca is unusually succinct, breezy and straightforward for a Pixar film; the screenplay lacks complexity, the conflict between the protagonists is rather trite, the main antagonist is little more than a cliché, and the stakes are quite low for all involved. Mundane though this approach is, it does allow Luca to be a sweet, gentle alternative to the rest of Emeryville’s output, offering a respite from the existential discussions that viewers may well be fatigued by.
The atypical nature of Luca extends to the designs and illustrations, which again are unlike any other Pixar production – note the characters with their bulbous heads, and round eyes with wide irises. According to director Enrico Casarosa, the visuals are wholly inspired by the works of Hayao Miyazaki, a fact which is most evident when seeing Giulia’s cat Machiavelli, who certainly wouldn’t look out-of-place in a Studio Ghibli film. It’s a welcome change from the norm, and one that hopefully finds its way into future releases from Pixar.
Although light on story and innovation, Luca is a warm, joyous excursion that refreshingly breaks free of the Pixar mould. Enrico Casarosa’s feature endears through its distinctive visuals, mellow tone and sense of adventure, proving an ideal escape for viewers of all ages – and the perfect film for pandemic viewing.
This review was first published by Rating Frames on August 12th, 2021.