** out of ****
(for rude humor, language, some thematic elements and brief violence)
Released: June 18, 2021 exclusively streaming on Disney Plus
Runtime: 95 minutes
Directed by: Enrico Casarosa
Starring: Jacob Tremblay, Jack Dylan Grazer, Emma Berman, Maya Rudolph, Jim Gaffigan, Giacomo Gianniotti, Saverio Raimondo, Marco Barricelli, Sandy Martin
Despite a fantastical premise, Luca is conventional to its core.
For that matter, the premise itself is a retread, stealing Ariel’s “part of your world” underwater yearning from The Little Mermaid and applying it to a sea creature boy named Luca. Instead of a romance on nearby shores, Luca seeks friendship.
The little twist in this Italian-set coming-of-age Pixar fable: the sea creatures magically transform into humans the moment they’re on dry land (no Faustian deal with Ursula needed). This allows them to mingle incognito, but Luca is forbidden from ever going there because of the dangers he would face if discovered in the human world, a place where sea creatures are feared – and killed.
What springs from this is everything you’d expect but nothing inspired. It’s the story of an odd couple friendship between Luca (Jacob Tremblay), a budding explorer whose spirit for adventure is tempered by his obedient disposition towards his loving-but-overprotective mother (Maya Rudolph), and young teen sea creature Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), a free spirit who explores the nearby seaside town of Portorosso with abandon.
Alberto helps Luca come out of his shell (or scales, as the case may be) and dare to take risks as they trek into Portorosso. There, they befriend a spunky but quirky girl Giulia (newcomer Emma Berman), an outsider of her own. Together, this trio of underdogs form a bond as Luca and Alberto try to remain undercover; that means staying absolutely dry, lest even the littlest splash of water reveal their amphibious identities.
That’s all well and good, as family fare goes, but characters lack any singular distinction beyond the “types” that they are, and the plot churns through a series of standard youthful hijinks before landing on a rather dull set of stakes: winning an annual race that would allow them to buy…a Vespa. Thrilling!
This may suffice for kids who haven’t been around the block of recycled formulas before, or who may find the colorful and vibrant animation to be mesmerizing in its own right (which it is), but for teens-on-up Luca lacks the sophistication that has elevated Pixar to the top echelon of modern animation studios.
It’s the first feature-length effort from longtime Pixar team member Enrico Casarosa (director of the Oscar-nominated short Luna), and while this succeeds as a travelogue love letter to the quaint charms of his Italian Riviera roots, the tale itself doesn’t feel remotely personal. Instead, it plods along in patchwork Story Team mechanics as the desperately-exaggerated vocal performances work to overcompensate for lackluster writing and bland dialogue. The resolution about acceptance (while good) is quick and trite, lacking emotional resonance.
Even at a scant 84-minute run time before the end credits roll, Luca feels too long, like a short story spinning its wheels and overstaying its welcome. Casarosa clearly had a vision for where he wanted to take us; the problem, unfortunately, is that he has nothing fresh to say while we’re there.