When “Luca” splashed onto Disney+ on June 18, it was met with positive to mixed reviews. Some viewers praised the film for its nuance and simplicity, while others were left searching for something more. “Luca” is vastly different from the studio’s previous films, but perhaps in all of the best ways possible.
One of the major themes of the film investigates the fear of exploring a new life and changing one’s perspective, and ironically, some viewers need to embrace this message when comparing the film to other Pixar works.
“Luca” and Embracing Change
While Pixar’s newest film is one of the studio’s gentler stories, that doesn’t make it any less worthy of a watch on your small screen. Directed by Enrico Casarosa from a script by Jesse Andrews and Mike Jones, the film’s summertime warmth makes it still worthwhile.
“Luca” is a coming-of-age story featuring the titular character, a 13-year-old sea creature in disguise, exploring a small Italian town for the summer. However, Luca and his friend Alberto face a major problem: The humans of the town fear the sea monsters, and the sea monsters fear the humans as well, and these reciprocated fears come from a lack of understanding each other, since neither species has met the other. Along the way, the friends dream of traveling the globe together when they meet a girl from the town, leading them to learn about the world in ways they never expected.
Behind the wholesome premise, “Luca” is a charming, funny and mystical film. The animation is undoubtedly spectacular, offering a bright and welcoming vision of the Italian Riviera that will make you wish you could visit. With hysterical and emotional moments throughout, each scene organically unfolds over time, leading to a satisfying and possibly tear-inducing finish.
Like every film, though, it’s impossible to guarantee all-around applause. While “Luca” has been critically acclaimed since its release, not everyone found it captivating. Some critics and casual viewers deemed it too slow, too small in scope or derided its “generic concept,” in the words of critic Brian Lowry from CNN. However, many of these reviews have one general opinion in common, which Lowry captures impeccably: “[‘Luca’ is] pleasant enough, but falls short of the high standards Pixar has set.”
The “high standards” and grand reputation of Pixar’s films seem to be, unfairly, holding viewers back from giving the film higher praise. Nonetheless, “Luca” is not the next “Toy Story” or “Soul,” and it never claims to be.
Instead, “Luca” is its own tale of acceptance, childhood and friendship, all nearly universal concepts designed to connect with most viewers, whether or not they’re too young to remember Pixar’s prime. In addition to the film’s hard-hitting moments of truth and transition, shouldn’t the film’s sweet moments and simple existence be enough to please the curious viewer?
Ultimately, just as Luca wants to break free of his unfulfilling life underwater, the film begs to break free of Pixar’s high standards. It seems that Pixar’s reputation has put an anchor on all of its new releases since the beginning of the studio’s ascendance — each film is either better than the last, or falls short of what could have been — but “Luca” gently marks a new era of Pixar, whether viewers are willing to see it or not.
The Pixar Perspective
Founded in 1979, Pixar Animation Studios is known for its highly acclaimed animated films. Their success with feature films, now 24 in total, began with the release of “Toy Story” in 1995, which was the first fully computer-animated film and set a lofty precedent for the rest of the studio’s works.
From the release of “Toy Story” to “Finding Nemo” in 2003, Pixar had seen climbing box office success with every new feature film, but these accomplishments came with a toll. According to “The Pixar Story,” a 2007 documentary about the studio’s beginnings, Pixar’s early successes placed more and more pressure on the studio to push out the next greatest computer-animated film.
Ever since, being well-known for creating some of the most technologically and emotionally stunning animated films has continued to put a damper on all of Pixar’s releases, as it feels just too easy to compare every subsequent feature to the studio’s previous blockbusters. In other words, Pixar’s greatest downfall has not been the presence of lackluster films, but its occasional inability to follow up a masterpiece with another equally satisfying work of art.
“Luca” seems to mark a transitional period for Pixar, though not similar to its previous shifts. When “The Good Dinosaur” was released, that era in Pixar’s catalog was regarded as a shift toward “lesser” Pixar works, due to the possibility of the studio overworking itself and exchanging its quality films for the ability to produce at least two half-baked films or sequels per year.
While Pixar has traditionally showcased Pete Docter and John Lasseter as the directors of most of its feature films, Casarosa is now a new director for the studio, but that’s not all. The next few Pixar films are also set to be directed by new talented minds, most notably Domee Shi, who will be Pixar’s first Asian feature film director for the upcoming “Turning Red.”
Perhaps more outwardly, another major change in Pixar’s approach to film was the drastically different animation style for “Luca,” which shows characters with rounder and less realistic features than most of the studio’s past figures.
All in all, Pixar is in a new phase of brand development, intentional or not, and viewers should keep an open mind when trying to connect to the studio’s upcoming films.
Reflection of Identity
The theme of identity in “Luca” is one that anyone can relate to, but perhaps Pixar and its loyal viewers need to take it more to heart.
Throughout the film, Luca struggles to make and keep his friends, while still trying to find his purpose in a world he’s never experienced. Eventually, Luca learns to accept himself and his curiosities, just as other characters learn to accept him for who he wants to be. Figuring out oneself is a big concept on its own, and in many ways, people continue to find their place in the world throughout the course of their lives. Similarly, “Luca” reflects Pixar’s search for their own firm place in the spotlight, no matter how successful they already are.
Docter, one of Pixar’s most prolific writers and directors, has even struggled with his talents in the industry. In an interview, Docter said that the idea for Pixar’s “Soul” was inspired by the emotional turbulence he experienced after writing and directing “Inside Out.”
Evidently, the message in “Luca” about personal identity is one that Pixar strives to uncover in many of their films, albeit in different ways each time. “[The film is] deeply rooted in human emotion and quandary,” Katie Walsh wrote in her review of the film for Tribune News Service. “It’s the tried-and-true story of what it means to be different, and what it means to be afraid because others fear you for being different. Sea monsters, nationality, race, sexuality, gender, it could be anything, but what matters is who you stand with and who you stand up for.”
Such messages of difference and identity are prominent in films for kids, but “Luca” manages to cover them on a deeper emotional level than it may seem at first. “On the surface, it’s a film that feels kind of slight,” said Matt Goldberg, Collider’s senior film editor, on an episode of the website’s podcast. “According to Pixar, it’s a ‘story about friendship,’ but that honestly sells the movie way short. All the Pixar movies are about friendship! Technically Luca is a buddy film, but it’s also much more than that.”
Ultimately, the film’s themes of personal growth and identity achieve a new, albeit hidden, emotional territory unlike other Pixar films. Luca and Alberto are close friends who deal with big themes of betrayal and loss in one of Pixar’s smallest locations, but it’s no small feat to craft such a story from a simple concept. “I really liked the small scale of it,” Goldberg continued. “But I don’t think ‘small’ is the right adjective – I think ‘intimate’ is a better word for it, and I think it gives ‘Luca’ its strength.”
While Pixar continues to experiment with unconventional styles and concepts, it’s important to remember that the memories of the studio’s past are not forgotten with time. Although their newest films may be incomparable to their first few, there’s no reason to repudiate the charm of “Luca” due to Pixar’s previous accomplishments. Viewers can enjoy “Luca” for its emotional nuance and gentle simplicity however they choose to see it, as long as they treat it as its own work without the weight of their past favorite films.
Just as Luca attempts to branch out and discover everything about the land above his home, Pixar branches out into new artistic territory and stretches the meaning of what a classic Pixar film can be.