(LUCA arrives on Disney+ on Friday, June 18th)
I’m not going to lie, my initial reaction to LUCA was one of disappointment. Not because it’s a poor picture – in fact, moments of it are as magical as Pixar has ever made – but because its low-ambition, almost lackadaisical storytelling often feels more like a crutch.
Told like a LITTLE MERMAID for boys, LUCA finds two sea creatures who take to the land. How or why is barely important to the story, all that matters is that on dry land they look exactly like humans. Getting wet reveals their true form. They have no concept of what the world looks like or how it works, but they’re dying to explore it. In their dreams, they scale the highest peaks and open fields on a Vespa, free from all worry and responsibility.
But getting one proves a hassle, and soon the boys draft themselves in a triathlon taking place in the small seaside town of Portorosso. Hijinks ensue, and everyone learns valuable lessons about growing up.
Make no mistake, plot wise, this is Pixar almost on autopilot. If you’re over ten, you’ll see every twist coming, and LUCA doesn’t care. So instead, it takes its breezy time hanging out with our leads, admiring the breathtakingly vivid landscapes recreated from the memories of director Enrico Casarosa. These sights are achingly beautiful, and the playful score by Dan Romer lovingly plays tribute to Italian cinema greats.
Only the voice acting falters, and that’s mainly due to the insistence on casting mostly Americans. Which means that everyone talk-a like-a this-a, peppering conversations with painful stereotypes like “Santa linguini!” It’s funny for a brief second, and then it starts to grate. What-a mistake-a to make-a!
The neorealist take on the material is actually the best part of the film. The story of two boys at the cusp of adulthood, sharing dreams, and one last summer together is a tried and true story. One that lends itself beautifully to Pixar’s wistful animation. But it’s tied to a fantasy plotline that never pushes its obvious metaphor (they’re literally fish out of water) anywhere. In theory, you could read anything you want into its ramshackle narrative. And that’s fine!
In fact, I wish LUCA had the guts to just stick with its Italian neorealist vibe. There’s more than a healthy dose of Fellini here to satisfy aficionados, and it would serve as a beautiful point of entry for younger audiences to something new. A tiny nudge here or there could turn this into a pre-teen LA STRADA or a less raunchy Y TU MAMÁ TAMBIÉN.
But it doesn’t, and it’s a shame, even when it’s easy to understand why it plays things so safe. The hijinks are there for the kids, the occasional passing melancholy will have to do for everyone else. This is, after all, a multi-million dollar production from Pixar and Disney, and it comes with certain expectations.
Some of which include the obligatory slapstick, here in the form of a bizarre cameo from Sacha Baron Cohen as a deep-sea creature who needs his heart restarted every now and then. It’s a funny, surreal bit that disappears as randomly as it appears. It holds no connection to the main plot, and nobody even references the whole thing again. As a gag, it’s great, but also a sign of how disjointed LUCA turned out.
Because on the other end, there’s a genuinely sweet and endearing story about friendship and blossoming affection that leans more than heavily on an unconventional love-triangle. Any actually interesting implications are left unexplored, as it would prevent screenings in certain territories. Which doesn’t matter for kids, naturally, but parents will sigh at what could have been.
In the end, LUCA is lovely, but slight, and has the potential for so much more. Visually it is gorgeous beyond belief, and the nostalgic endless summer evokes the spiritual transcendence of Studio Ghibli. It doesn’t strive for much more than that, and sometimes that’s fine.
But, as with memories to childhood summers, you can’t help but wonder what could have been.