Pixar’s newest movie is a fantasy about sea monsters coming onto land, but it’s rooted in authentic childhood memories. Director Enrico Casarosa (who previously made the Pixar short La Luna) based Luca on his own childhood summers, and the result is a movie that brings in fantastical elements, but also evokes specific emotions tied to coming-of-age stories.
Luca doesn’t explore big, existential emotions like the Pixar films that made the company an industry leader, but it captures the fleeting halcyon days of summer in a sweet, understated way. Casarosa subverts the typical Pixar formula, not just in the movie’s visual stylings, but also in the way he weaves in the emotions, using smaller story moments.
[Ed. note: This review contains slight spoilers for Luca.]
Luca follows two young sea monsters. The titular Luca (Jacob Tremblay) is curious, yet timid. His burgeoning interest in the human world has been squashed by overprotective parents. Fearless Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), meanwhile, lives on land and encourages Luca to be more daring. The two run away to a human town, dreaming of buying a Vespa and seeing the world. With a chance to win enough money to buy their prized moped, the two join up with Giulia (Emma Berman), the fishmonger’s daughter, to compete in the annual Portorosso cup, a triathlon where instead of a running leg, competitors eat pasta.
In Luca, the magic is in the tiny details that flesh out the human world. The undersea setting is gorgeous, certainly, but the seaside town of Portorosso is what really shines. Through Luca and Alberto’s eyes, it makes sense that the human setting should be so lovingly augmented. All the little details — the laundry hanging between the streets, the uneven cobblestones, the posters on the walls — create a gorgeous rendition of the real world. It isn’t photorealistic, but it makes the town a little warmer, a little brighter, and a little more golden, almost like a rosy-tinged memory. The stylization bolsters this blissful summer shared by three friends.
Each of the characters has a very distinct design that’s more cartoonish than usual Pixar fare. With exaggerated expressions and movements, all of the characters (not just the kids) have a very deliberate physicality. There is a thought to them that extends to the voice acting, with the clear difference between the more hesitant Tremblay as Luca, who slowly gains confidence, and brash Grazer as Alberto, who gets in touch with his more vulnerable side. Particularly memorable, however, is Giulia’s father, a large stoic man with an impressive mustache (and a cat with similar facial markings), who isn’t particularly forthcoming, but eventually opens his heart up to these two misfit kids.
Luca’s central plot is pretty straightforward, with the three kids competing in a race, while Luca and Alberto hide their identities. But that just allows the relationships between the characters to take center stage. What starts out as a simple friendship between Luca and Alberto grows into something more complicated when Giulia enters the picture. It isn’t a romantic quandary at all. Instead, Luca plays with the idea that anyone can have different emotionally satisfying relationships with different people, while acknowledging how hard that can be to accept.
Pixar is known for emotional movies, and at first glance, Luca seems like an outlier. It doesn’t operate like Soul or Inside Out, which each build up to a big emotional catharsis. Instead, that overwhelming Pixar emotion is of a different caliber, one that sinks in after the credits roll. The movie’s emotional arc isn’t defined by one or two big moments. Instead, the best bits are actually interspersed between the more archetypical climatic moments. From Luca and Alberto trying gelato for the first time to Luca and Giulia bonding over a telescope, the comparatively ordinary interactions weave together to create an evocative coming-of-age tale.
Luca’s story is simple, but it works so beautifully. Much as Casarosa pushed the bounds of Pixar’s in-house style, he also played with the storytelling format that the studio has done time after time, to varying degrees of effectiveness. Luca isn’t trying to make people cry, the way some Pixar movies now feel obligated to do, but it still rings as a bittersweet experience. Instead of a tearjerker, it’s a fond memory, a soft sigh after a recollection of a time gone by.
Luca is available on June 18 on Disney Plus for all users.