There are two clichéd criticisms of Pixar that have always stuck because they have always been true. The first, so true that is has become a meme, is that every Pixar movie is about “what if [subject of the movie] had feelings?” That’s the crux of their work: how can computer animation convey meaningful, emotional poignancy? Luca evades this initial criticism, shooting a bit straighter and just telling an entertaining story, certainly one awash with feelings, but existing primarily as an enjoyable tale for all-ages (another adage of the Common Pixar Review, and one that holds true). The second clichéd critique is about their aesthetic style, specifically that all Pixar humans look the same. This is another memetic phenomenon: run any photo through the filters of the Voilá app, and you’re an Instagram ready Pixar character. Once again, it’s also a meme because it’s true: their characters are indistinct, and in their weird uncanny approximation of human likeness, sometimes lack a genuine sense of humanity. Once again, Luca sidesteps critique: its humans are oblong and funny, and stylistically designed around an aesthetic unique unto this movie alone.
However, these successes are somewhat overshadowed by the context around Luca’s release. Currently, there seems to be an internal struggle between Disney and Pixar, as we’ve just waited for that Cinderella slipper to drop. Remember that Disney paid a clean $7.4 billion for Pixar. Almost twice what they paid for Star Wars. Almost twice what they paid for Marvel. A fraction of what they paid for Fox but, in reality, more costly than what you would attribute to any separate Fox property. This paints Pixar as a hot commodity for Disney, yet they won’t release a Pixar movie in theaters. This and Soul (2020) will be the only two I’ve not seen on a big screen. The fate of Luca is that it does not come to theaters, yet it also does not have a premium price (unlike Disney Animation’s own Raya and the Last Dragon). Is this 7.4 billion dollar studio’s release equivalent to a Netflix film, that comes and goes without premium or any opening flare? The marketing deals remain. You can get Luca toys with Happy Meals at McDonalds. But you cannot see Luca at a theater with your kids. If it would’ve waited one month, it would’ve been the bankable animation release of the summer, and it is a movie primed for that spirit. Is it worth it that Pixar staff are left feeling demoralized? Disney, release Pixar’s future movies on the big screen, please. Animation deserves the same platform as your blockbusters and for significantly better reasons; the intricacies of animation are best represented on the largest screen.
But what of Luca? Could anything within the film have pointed Disney toward this dire release idea? Sadly, yes. You can see where the market would be questioned. It’s Pixar’s most straightforward film. There is little high concept to recommend it on (a damn near necessity for comedy and animation release): it’s a straight line from idea, to conception, to the end. It takes no detours and does not waste anytime. Yes, it avoids the usual Common Pixar Reviewer clichés but it achieves this by foregoing the signature formula that has allowed for this easy, memetic criticism.
Blessedly, Pixar continues to cultivate talent around an inclusive and multi-directional wheel. Their creators make remarkable shorts and then get a shot at brand new IP. It’s an incredible internal farm system, the best one in modern animation. Enrico Casarosa got to make 2012’s La luna and now gets to make Luca. His influences are great storytellers who channel childlike experiences into new, exciting an culturally-resonant stories: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry; Italo Calvino; and Hayao Miyazaki. Between the lines of those influences, you can read what Luca is, how it has been made, and why it has been made. It reads: this is a children’s fable enhanced by fabulous magical elements, with the charm of a Ghibli standard. In fact, it is more securely a Ghibli film than Ghibli’s Earwig and the Witch, from earlier this year. It’s not that damned.
If anything, Luca is simply charmed. It goes off without any real hitch. It’s the story of the friendship between two sea monster boys on the Italian Rivera, and their friendship with a human girl, and their quest to win a Vespa in a race. The boys found a poster that advertised Vespas as Freedom. That is the central goal of it all, something that simple and endearing. Meanwhile, the townsfolk don’t much like sea monsters and want to destroy them. The bad news for the boys is, if they get even a little wet, they’ll transform into sea monsters! The good news for the boys is the inevitable heartwarming and inclusive ending.
The sea monster aesthetic provides a few fun animation opportunities. It does not feel like Pixar is tied to realistic proportions. They still create a fluency and visual language that animates and creates fluid character shifting situations; because, even in the simple story, they are up for animation that is hard to do. Of course, it all looks good and as technically top-of-the-class as we can ever expect. It’s the sort of bright and vibrant film where I look over at my daughter and see that glowing response — yes — that’s what Luca is for.
Thinning out the structure may make for a slight film but it also means that everything here is agreeable. There are hardly any points about Luca that could feel contentious. It’s safe, absolutely, and not a giant risk, but our kids don’t always need risk and cynicism. Sometimes, they need a beautiful fast flowing movie about sea monsters and the humans who must learn to love them. Sometimes that’s what we need too. Luca is perfectly all right and would have been a fitting Summer movie at theaters. Now it’s likely to be a fitting Summer movie for Disney Plus, for a couple weeks, and fade into the mid half of the studio filmography.