The past eighteen months has seen a complete shift in what we mean by the term ‘straight to on demand’. Once the preserve of movies that weren’t worth a cinema release, circumstances have meant a hybrid solution is now the sensible choice for a lot of new releases. That said, the big movies are still heading for the big screen in at least some capacity, which is what makes Luca a little bit concerning. Instead of a hybrid release, or premium pay-per-view purchase a la Mulan, Pixar’s latest is heading straight to your streaming queue on Disney+. Now, that was the case for the exquisite Soul last Christmas, but that film didn’t have much choice. So, should we be worried?
Set in 1950s Italy, Luca’s world is one where sea monsters secretly dwell beneath the ocean’s surface. Thought to be a myth on land, they are able to take human shape when they leave the water. Luca (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) is a young sea monster who dreams of seeing the world above, but is kept away by his over-protective mother (Maya Rudolph). One day, however, he meets a sea monster named Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer) who lives on the surface and tells him of all the exciting things out there. Entranced, Luca follows Alberto to the town of Portorosso, and experiences a life-changing summer.
With soft edges and bright colours, the whole film might as well be an advert for the Italian tourist board. Inspired by the childhood of Enrico Casarosa, the story plays out like an American take on a Studio Ghibli film – the similarity between the town’s name and Ghibli’s Porco Rosso surely can’t be a coincidence – focusing on joy and whimsy rather than getting to the next plot point. It’s fun for the most part, and will be a delight for children. But there’s something missing.
It knowingly mimics the work of Hayao Miyazaki, but never advances beyond an impression of his work. It’s like hearing an American tourist describe the plot of Kiki’s Delivery Service, with the script unable to resist the visual gags and on-the-nose humour that’s a convention of American animation. Going in this direction also robs it of the Pixar gut punch, the existential musing that reminds you this is more than a vehicle to sell toys. It seems like harsh criticism, but when you’re a Pixar film aspiring to look like something Miyazaki would make, the bar is high.
For those just looking for a good family film, there’s plenty here to enjoy. Luca and Alberto are great fun to be around, with all the clueless bravado inherent in boys on the cusp of adolescence. It also benefits from great casting, as Rudolph expertly balances comedy with emotional warmth, and Sacha Baron Cohen pops up as Luca’s hilarious uncle.
Like 2014’s overlooked The Good Dinosaur, Luca is a light, enjoyable movie that would look much better coming from any other studio. However, with the weight of history that comes with the Pixar name, many will be expecting more.
Luca is available on Disney+ now.