When Pixar first started making short film spinoffs and sequels to their feature films, the company added an odd new dynamic to the entire realm of popular animated movies. Pixar’s eventual parent company, Disney, had always wrapped up its stories with “happily ever after” endings. Early Pixar shorts, like the Monsters, Inc. spinoff Mike’s New Car, or Finding Nemo’s hybrid goof Exploring the Reef, didn’t mess with that tradition at all — apart from bringing back the movie’s characters, they barely intersected with the films at all, and certainly didn’t have much to do with the originating movies’ plots. The same went for shorts like Jack-Jack Attack, BURN-E, and Party Central, which told jokey side stories from The Incredibles, WALL-E, and Toy Story, respectively. These shorts were primarily intended as DVD bonuses, to give buyers some extra incentive — fun little returns to a world, but without much depth or significance.
But something changed a bit with Riley’s First Date?, the 2015 Inside Out short. It isn’t just a jokey aside to Inside Out, it’s a legitimate mini-sequel that checks in on the characters after the action of the movie, and actually moves the story forward slightly, past its seemingly final point of closure. When Disney movies started following the Pixar spinoff-shorts model, with Tangled’s sequel short Tangled Ever After and the Frozen sequel short Frozen Fever, the studio took up the same model: emphasis on the “after” instead of the “happily ever after.”
Disney’s latest CGI short, the Luca sequel Ciao Alberto, comes from the same mentality. It’s brief, cute, and focused on sight gags, but it also reopens some big, raw emotions that seemed at least nominally resolved in Luca. And in the process, it zips through a story that feels like it could have sustained an entire movie.
2021’s Luca is primarily focused on the title character, a young sea monster who takes up life on land and in human form, after he meets a kindred soul, a daring peer named Alberto. The film revolves around their friendship and their low-stakes quest to show up a local bully and win a local competition in a tiny seaside Italian town, in order to win enough money to buy themselves a Vespa. Ciao Alberto takes place after the film resolves, and returns to Alberto to address one of his major problems.
[Ed. note: Major spoilers for Luca ahead.]
In Luca, it eventually emerges that while Alberto claims he’s hanging around the area waiting for his father to return from work-related travel, Alberto’s father has actually abandoned him, leaving him to survive on his own. His father’s disappearance has left him with a deep emotional hole to fill, and he tries to cram it full of incident and adventure, pretending he isn’t hurt and lonely. When he befriends Luca, their relationship becomes critically important to him, and he rapidly becomes possessive and controlling. Eventually, he sees every independent thought, desire, or relationship Luca has as a betrayal of their friendship.
The film ends with Luca fulfilling one of those independent dreams by leaving the area to go to school and learn more about the world. Meanwhile, Alberto finds his own dream in working with local fisherman Massimo, gaining a father-figure, a place in the community, and a sense of purpose and value. But the film is Luca’s story more than Alberto’s, and while they both get happy endings, it’s easy to see why Ciao Alberto writer-director McKenna Harris (who also served as Luca’s story lead) felt Alberto needed a little more closure.
In Ciao Alberto, Alberto repeatedly fails at his work for Massimo due to being overeager, cocky, impulsive, and inexperienced. He doesn’t just make small, reparable mistakes, either — he alienates Massimo’s customers, makes a huge mess of his home, and eventually destroys the boat Massimo depends on for his livelihood. Weirdly, he doesn’t even seem that apologetic or thoughtful about what he’s done. He’s just worried about losing his job, and about fielding Massimo’s entirely theoretical anger at him.
The short resolves in a positive way. Alberto’s anxiety comes to a head, Massimo delivers a short speech, and all is well. But the way the short taps into Alberto’s insecurities and inadequacies necessarily feels pretty shorthanded — it’s an awful lot of trauma and emotion to pack into less than six minutes of runtime. Harris’ ambition here in telling a meaningful and emotional story instead of going for six minutes of sea-monster transformation gags is laudable. But Alberto’s abandonment trauma, desire for a father, overcompensation, and life of pathological pretense is also fertile emotional ground, and it feels like it could have been the seed for an entire feature-length sequel, rather than a few kinda horrifying gags and a quick ending.
It’s not that there’s anything inherently wrong with Ciao Alberto. It’s colorful and lively, full of quick edits, big moments, and gags around Machiavelli, Massimo’s beloved cranky cat. It’s a nice little window back into a bright world, and it does contribute something significant to the Luca story. It just feels like it could have been a lot more — and given the desperation and dangerous behavior on display here, it seems like Alberto needs and deserves more. It’s clear that the end of Luca wasn’t the end of him processing his trauma and moving on, and that he has a long way to go yet. Ciao Alberto shows the cracks in his façade, but barely gets to the point of letting him understand that façade itself.
Maybe that’s the downside of Pixar’s thoughtful, emotional approach to storytelling — there’s never going to be enough room to get to everyone’s story, and viewers will often have to settle for implied resolutions rather than exploring every side character at length. Sometimes, the audience has to fill in big gaps themselves, which can be a terrific way to tell a story. Those two old-lady sea monsters at the end of Luca definitely have a fascinating history of their own, for instance. It’s easy to wish this short had been about them, but then again, maybe it’s more fun to leave their backstory open to fans’ imaginations.
And it doesn’t seem like their tale is nearly as crucial or as raw as Alberto’s. For a little kid, he’s got some big problems, and this short does more to expose them than to permanently resolve them. While Ciao Alberto packs a wallop over its short runtime, and feels like an important footnote to the Luca story, it’s a little stunning how much it tries to take on, and how quickly it tries to wrap up a lifetime of hurt in a few quick minutes.
Ciao Alberto is now streaming on Disney Plus.