Luca, the latest film from Pixar Studios, (now on Disney+ and in theaters) follows a familiar pattern that many—if not all—Pixar movies have begun to follow in the past five years.
Luca is about a young sea monster (named Luca) who lives with his family off the coast of Italy. The first act is reminiscent of The Little Mermaid; Luca dreams of an existence bigger than he has and he is fascinated by objects from the dry land that have fallen into the ocean.
Luca’s grandmother reveals that she has spent time in the village with the humans—their monster species transforms into human when they are above ground and revert to sea monster when they are wet, including when it rains.
Luca meets a friend his own age, Alberto, who does not have parents and is similarly infatuated with dry land and they start playing around in an abandoned lighthouse. After Luca’s parents, Daniela and Lorenzo, learn Luca has been going to the surface, they plan to send him to the deep sea with his uncle, but Luca runs away.
Luca and Alberto meet a young girl named Giulia and they decide to enter the Portorosso Cup Triathlon in order to best the town bully, and while they train, Daniela and Lorenzo also come above ground to find Luca.
This is where the pattern begins—every Pixar movie has become a chase movie ever since Pete Docter was named Chief Creative Officer in 2018.
Docter has worked at Pixar since the beginning—one of the originators of the concept for Toy Story—and would go on to direct the Pixar features Monsters, Inc., Up, Inside Out, and most recently, Soul. (All of which were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature and all but Monsters, Inc. won the award).
Docter has had a creative hand in most of Pixar’s work, having been with the company for thirty years, and there is a specific forward momentum, racing against a literal enemy or sometimes just the clock. While they are not literally feature-length chases, they feel like they are; as Docter got more and more responsibility at the studio, more and more Pixar movies seemed to follow this chase structure.
Soul features the lead characters running through the city of New York to get back to his body and into the club. Inside Out features the characters, the emotions inside of a teen girl, trying to reignite the girl’s “personality islands.” Up features the characters on this adventure through South America.
It’s different than just a movie with a specific objective that the story is moving toward; there’s a really physical, visceral sense of rushing that pervades the films. This isn’t a bad thing, but when it becomes the only thing that Pixar does, as it has seemed for the past half a decade, it can be a bit tiresome. That rushing quality is extremely anxious and not entirely satisfying
It didn’t used to be this way. In the first 15 years of Pixar, more or less every original project and most of its sequels were heralded as masterpieces, and many of them were, peaking with the one-two punch of Ratatouille and WALL-E in 2007 and 2008, respectively.
Many of these movies also employed chases. The final act of the original Toy Story shows Woody and Buzz Lightyear rushing to catch up to the moving van lest they be left behind. But that is a single sequence of maybe ten minutes in a 90-minute film. The Pete Docter films, and Luca, are dominated by the chase, which takes up often more than half of the runtime.
Dramatically, a chase makes sense, because it inherently raises the stakes, and that makes it easy for children, the primary demographic of Pixar, to understand. But, as an adult, it feels repetitive at this point. Onward and Luca particularly feel like they are cut too much from the same cloth—both being about young monster boys on a mission and their parents in pursuit.
Pixar’s best film, WALL-E, is essentially the opposite of a chase for most of its runtime. It operates largely as a silent film, following the little WALL-E robot as he goes about his existence, cleaning the wasteland that earth has become, watching Hello, Dolly!, and yearning for love. There’s nothing rushed about this, as the audience is supposed to feel his boredom with the monotony of his life.
One day he is visited by a much more technologically advanced robot, EVE, and the two fall in love. They end up on a spaceship where humanity now lives and they do engage in a chase—it is an adventure film, after all (and Docter has a writing credit on the feature). But so much of the film is merely a character piece about two robots falling in love, dancing among the stars, that when we get to the final adventure, it does not feel like the film is a Chase Film, as was the case with Toy Story.
There’s nothing wrong with any of these movies, including Luca, which is quite charming and lovely. Pixar has a very high floor of quality that they have never gone below. But the magical originality that built the Pixar brand has ossified into something a bit wanting and maybe someday soon they will break the mold and get back to what makes them the best animated studio in the business.