Stream It Or Skip It: ‘Luca’ on Disney+, a Pixar Outing in Which (Possibly Gay?) Fish-Boys Enjoy an Adventure on Land
Luca is the second Pixar film to go direct to Disney+ after Soul, which bent our brains enough that they might need to be bent back, by something a little lower-concept. This story of fish-people who become regular people-people when they’re out of water is from Enrico Casarosa, directing his debut feature after helming charming 2011 Pixar short La Luna, and working as part of the animation house’s senior creative team. I’ve often wondered if we’d enjoy Pixar films more if they were divorced from the context of the studio’s venerated library — which seems to be the case with this lightweight delight.
The Gist: Luca (voice of Jacob Tremblay) is, from one perspective, a sea monster. He and other members of his fishy species aren’t quite merpeople, because they have legit legs and long, eel-like tails to go with their full-scaly bodies with mini-flipper ears and surely some gills somewhere, since they breathe underwater. His kind are a legend to land-dwelling bipedal anthropoids — a legend to be feared, because humans are more likely to jab such strange and beautiful creatures with the pointy end of a harpoon than offer a welcoming hand. That’s why these fishfolk dart away at the first sight of a boat, and why Luca’s parents, Daniela (Maya Rudolph) and Lorenzo (Jim Gaffigan), are so overprotective, forcing young Luca into a tedious life of herding little fish that baa like sheep. He can only dream of doing something else, whatever that may be, because he really doesn’t know what’s out there in the world.
One day, Luca follows a trail of sunken flotsam to Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), a fishboy abandoned to his own devices by his father. Alberto shows his new naif pal what happens when they venture out of the water: They transform into human form, and it’s important to know that they don’t need to be fully submerged to become fishy; if an arm is splashed, it will be scaly while the rest of them remains human; if a fishfella, say, wanted to keep his pesca-self a secret from humans, things as benign as rain and puddles would be a problem. Don’t ask me why this is so. It’s this way because the screenwriters wrote it, and one can assume the world they wrote implies an alternate evolutionary timeline from our own. Did you ask a bunch of questions about why Nemo and Dory can talk, or about the physics of the doors that sure seem to be hopping between parallel dimensions in Monsters Inc.?
Anyway. Luca and Alberto cavort and play on an isolated chunk of picturesque Italian shoreline. It’s sometime in the mid-century, because they yearn for a Vespa, a very stylish symbol of freedom that might be the most crass instance of product placement in a Pixar movie yet. Luca’s parents find out about his dalliances and threaten to send him to live with his “weird, see-through” uncle, Ugo (Sacha Baron Cohen), who lives in the darkest depths of the sea, eating scraps of whale carcass. So you’d do exactly what Luca does: Run away with Alberto to live as humans in quaint fishing village Portorosso, where they’ll befriend a little girl named Giulia (Emma Berman) and participate in a triathlon in order to win enough money to buy themselves a fancy moped. Whether you’re walking or swimming, you always gotta chase your dream.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Fish people haven’t farted around on screen this much since The Shape of Water, and two fellas haven’t enjoyed the Italian scenery this much since Call Me By Your Name. And since Luca is a Pixar movie, it must be judged within the context of the PQR, or Pixar Quality Ranking: It’s slightly above lower-middling feature The Good Dinosaur in terms of storytelling depth, if slightly below in visual wonder, drawing a bit of underwater whimsy from Finding Nemo/Finding Dory (and making a charming reference to La Luna, too).
Performance Worth Watching: I loved the characterization of Giulia’s father Massimo (voiced by Marco Barricelli), a massive fleshwad of a fisherman with one arm — and a warm heart to bely his rough exterior. Their cat, Machiavelli, also steals scenes with his suspicious stare, because he can smell the fishiness on Alberto and Luca, but lacks the communicative skill to betray their secret.
Memorable Dialogue: Of course there’s a local bully in Portorosso who always wins the triathlon — and who senses that the two newcomers might not be like everyone else: “Something’s fishy with you two.”
Sex and Skin: None.
Our Take: Call Me By Your Name eh? Are Alberto and Luca gay? I sure hope so. They’re disarmingly cute together, and there’s one of those, whaddaycall ’em, metaphors lurking in this story, because the two boys have to hide who they really are since they don’t fit into human society, and fear rejection and violence. Am I reading too much into this? No I am not. It’s called subtext. The non-subtext — just “text” I guess! — is sweet and gentle, a story of preadolescent boys enjoying an adventure in which they discover more about the world than one tiny little corner of it. But as is the case with art, one is free to interpret as one wishes, and the artist’s intent is moot.
This is what elevates Luca above a trifle with familiar story beats and characters, from the concerned parental figures to the judgmental bully, all of whom exist as little more than catalysts to spur along the plot. Casarosa cultivates a dynamic among Alberto, Luca and Giulia that’s as playful temperate as a freeform day on the Italian seaside. Those elements, along with the trademark-Pixar detailed wonder and joy of the animation — gorgeous orange sunsets, vast underwater pastures, colorful character design — render the film a scoop of gelato in the summer sun. It’s not wholly substantial, but it’s nonetheless a temporary delight to be enjoyed here and now, in this moment.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Luca is an enjoyably featherweight film that aims to be little more than a fanciful diversion — and maybe is all the better for it.