Luca – Directed by Enrico Casarosa. Written by Jesse Andrews and Mike Jones. Starring the voices of Jacob Tremblay, Jack Dylan Grazer, Emma Berman, Saverio Raimondo, Maya Rudolph, Marco Barricelli, Jim Gaffigan, Peter Sohn, Lorenzo Crisci, Marina Massironi, Sandy Martin, and Sacha Baron Cohen

**1/2 out of ****

Whenever Pixar gives us a new movie, it’s going to be worth paying attention to. Their movies tend to be more mature than the average animated fare, with the recent Soul being a surprisingly dark and poignant musing on mortality and finding purpose on life. And right before the pandemic hit and shut down theaters, those still willing to brave the theaters got to see a brilliant fantasy family saga play out on the big screen with Onward.

Luca is the second Pixar film to debut exclusively on Disney Plus, the streaming service that remains a little light on original content. While Disney movies like the excellent Raya and the Last Dragon made viewers pay $30 to watch them on streaming on release day if they didn’t want to go to the theaters, Pixar has released its last two exclusively to streaming – free of charge. That’s enough to put me in a good mood when watching Luca, and with Pixar you generally know you’re getting quality – with a few exceptions.

Ultimately, the studio’s reputation for quality is Luca‘s biggest enemy, as it doesn’t really live up to that quality while still being perfectly enjoyable. If this was a Dreamworks, Sony, or Illumination film, it would likely be received very warmly as a calm, funny slice of paradise. But with Pixar, we largely expect something profound or heartbreaking – and Luca seems more content to simply take us on vacation.

One of the film’s biggest issues is that its inspirations are on full display from the start. This is heavily inspired by Disney classic The Little Mermaid. Not to the extent of recent Netflix release Wish Dragon, which sometimes seemed like it was lifting whole scenes and character beats from the original Disney Aladdin, but the bones of the story are similar enough that it’s hard to ignore. It’s the story of a mythological sea creature who wants to live on land and has to elude their overprotective parent to make their dream come true.

This time, the teenage Ariel is replaced by Luca, a curious young boy voiced by Jacob Tremblay. Part of a family of sea monsters (reptillian scaly creatures who look totally un-fearsome). His explorations lead him to Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), a slightly older sea monster boy who has chosen to live full time on the surface – and from whom Luca learns that he can assume human form out of water, as long as he doesn’t get wet. But when Luca’s overprotective parents (Maya Rudolph and Jim Gaffigan) find out about his journeys, they plan to banish him to the deep sea with his eccentric uncle (Sacha Baron Cohen, making the most of two scenes) – and Luca makes the decision to run away.

From there, the two boys go on an adventure to the fictional Italian fishing village of Portorosso, where they try to blend into human society and meet a small but charming collection of characters. The movie has some fun visual gags about trying to fit in, but it moves quickly. But the boys have one passion above all – getting their hands on a Vespa scooter, which they think is the coolest thing they’ve ever seen.

That leads them to try to compete in an upcoming Italian triathalon – swimming, bicycling, and…eating pasta? But to get there, they’ll have to beat – or team up with – a young girl named Giulia, who is probably the most intense contestant as she tries to avenge an embarrassing loss. She winds up becoming a surrogate family for Luca and Alberto, along with her no-nonsense dad Massimo (a one-armed fisherman who is a great example of casual disability representation with zero angst or negative tropes present).

The foundations for a very good movie are all here, but the movie makes a couple of choices that knock it down quite a few rungs. First of all, sans credits (which you should watch for some charming epilogue cartoons), the movie is only about eighty minutes and it feels like it. That means it has to rush through quite a lot of story developments, and major character beats can feel perfunctory – especially in the rift that develops between the characters.

I get that this movie wants us to have sympathy for both Luca and Alberto, as they wind up wanting very different things out of their time in Portorosso, but I don’t think this part of the movie is handled very well. Luca seems like he wants friendship, family, and knowledge, while Alberto wants…I’m not sure. A reveal about his past brings the character into a clearer light, but the problem is by then he’s made to be pretty unlikable. And the fact that he’s implied to be older than Luca and Giulia doesn’t help.

The movie’s biggest problem, by far, is its villain Ercole. A local wealthy teenager who intends to repeat as race champ, he spends most of the movie as a generic 80s sports movie villain taunting the hero. But as the events of the movie unfold, about 90% of the way through the movie he takes a very dark turn that feels out of step with the gentle tone of the movie so far. He’s not particularly compelling as a lighter villain, just annoying, and he’s not any more interesting as an attempted murderer.

The short length also doesn’t help the storyarc of Luca’s parents as they seek out their wayward son, although I do think this film explains their change of heart a little better than Triton’s in The Little Mermaid. And there is a lot of good in this movie. The ending is genuinely tearjerking in the great Pixar style. It has some good visual gags, especially involving Massimo’s pet cat Machiavelli – who smells something edible in those boys and is determined to do something about it, even if he literally bites off more than he can chew.

Luca is perfectly fun summer entertainment, with brilliant animation and a charming story with few surprises. But we’re conditioned to expect brilliance out of Pixar while the creative team here is perfectly content to give us a breezy summer getaway. You’re not going to walk away from this movie unhappy, but don’t expect it to live up to Pixar’s last two. But at least the price is definitely right.

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