Pixar's latest is a big step-down from their usual fare
Pixar’s constant output and extremely high standards can be grueling for filmmakers, it is impossible to keep up the production of such transcendental and cultural phenomena like Finding Nemo (2003), Inside Out (2015), or Up (2009). However, rarely do Pixar’s “mediocre” films fall away from their prestige credentials to become forgetful family flicks (Cars sequels aside). However, it was bound to happen, nevertheless this long streak of ingenious creativity had an impressive run.
Luca (2021) is Pixar’s latest film. We follow a sea monster kid named Luca (Jacob Tremblay) who is told to fear the human/land world. However, after meeting up with the daring loner sea monster Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), Luca learns that when he is on dry land he transforms into a human being. His curiosity for this new world leads him to visit nearby Italian coastal town Porto Rosso, whose inhabitants have a propensity for hunting sea monsters.
Luca is the first feature film of Italian director Enrico Casarosa, whose previous animated short film La Luna (2011) was well-received and nominated for an Oscar. His jump to feature length narrative seeks to recreate the summers that he remembers as a child and the friendships that he forged. Certainly, Luca centers on the newfound relationship between Luca and Alberto, with side characters added on the way. Casarosa does brilliantly in casting two of the best child actors working today to voice his protagonists, and despite this being their first voice-work, the two do brilliantly in enlivening their characters. Tremblay with his signature naivete and innocence, and Dylan Grazer with the blind confidence he exuded in Shazam! (2019).
However, Casarosa maps out his film to be too similar to other properties. The entirety of Luca seems to be a sequence of homages and references to other films and stories. Casarosa has admitted to borrowing some elements from Miyazaki’s animated films, but Luca is almost identical in themes and structure to the Japanese animators’ Ponyo (2008). The beats of two worlds being at odds only to be solved when they get to know each other is a Disney cliché at this point, even formulated with sea monsters and water creatures in The Little Mermaid (1989). As such Luca doesn’t carry the originality or unique flavor that Pixar has accustomed viewers to, in fact, it is one of the most un-Pixar-like films ever, seeming to be a slight repackaging of a worn-out narratives and tropes.
Luca still carries some of Pixar’s wit in certain scenes, but becomes more kid-oriented and conventional as it goes on. The villain is ridiculously one-dimensional, the jokes elicit only gentle chuckles, and the plot points can be seen coming a mile-away. There are worthy values showcased, and if you strain yourself, you can read Luca as commentary on racial “passing” or the Italian immigrant crisis. Even so the film never dips its toe into anything too deep, remaining shallow and playing it safe with comedy, plot, character, and stakes. Casarosa becomes entangled in inserting winks and nods to Italian culture to the point of them becoming exhausting cliches (Vespas! Pasta! Marcello Mastroianni!). Instead, of creating an atmosphere of cultural immersion with a few laughs at stereotypes such as Ratatouille (2007) did with French culture, Luca’s seems to come closer to the kind of American fetishization of European culture akin to Eat, Pray, Love (2010).
The animation is geared to be more cartoonish this time around (when a character hits his head, he has sardines circling his head), perhaps signaling to the shift towards kids and making Luca as soft and accessible as possible. The problem is that the animation style is indistinguishable to streamlined animated films from the likes of Sony or Illumination and is a significant step back from what Pixar had been using in Soul (2020), Onward (2020), or even the mixed styles of the The Good Dinosaur (2015).
Pixar has built its brand on a daring form of storytelling that has pushed the boundaries of both narrative and technology. Even when not at its best, there is still some attempt from Pixar to comment on larger themes, such as fan-culture in Onward, climate change in Wall-E (2008), and superhero mania in The Incredibles 2 (2018). Luca never takes a leap of faith or risk, to the point that it feels like it was produced by an entirely different studio.
In the end, Luca is a let-down from a studio that has shown it is capable of much better. Casarosa seems to stumble in a spot where he should have been the most comfortable and able to steer clear of cliches and have room to take risks and undertake explorations. Instead, we get an inoffensive and forgettable flick that will bore parents, but by following true-and-tried formulas will keep young children entertained for over an hour.