'Luca' Is a Sweet Pixar Movie That Doesn't Measure up to Its Influences

The latest from the animation studio skips theaters in favor of Disney+.

luca pixar
Pixar/Disney
Pixar/Disney

When the first images for Luca, the new sea monster buddy comedy that marks the 24th feature film by Pixar Animation Studios, came out there was immediate speculation: Is this Pixar's version of Call Me by Your Name? The parallels were uncanny. Like the Oscar-winning film, Luca takes place in a beautiful seaside town in Southern Italy where the two protagonists develop an intensely close friendship as they eat ice cream and ride bicycles. Also, the director of CMBYN is named Luca (Guadagnino).

Watching Luca, however, you'll find yourself comparing it to not to that very adult film but more to the work of animator Hayao Miyazaki. This movie, more than any of its others, is Pixar's answer to Ponyo. While that results in Luca being often quite lovely, it falls short of reaching the heights associated with Studio Ghibli. Luca ultimately gets bogged down by a literalism that takes away some of its magic.

Directed by Enrico Casarosa, best known for the Pixar shortLa Luna, the movie, exclusive to Disney+, begins underwater, where the titular sea monster voiced by Jacob Tremblay is responsible for caring for a flock of fish. His mom and dad (Maya Rudolph and Jim Gaffigan) caution him about the dangers of going toward the surface, but his fears fly out the window when he meets Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), a fellow sea monster. Soon, Luca learns that not only does Alberto live above water, but that creatures like them have the ability to transform into humans when they step onto land.

luca pixar
Pixar/Disney

The charismatic Alberto introduces Luca to the wonders of human stuff, specifically the much coveted Vespa, and they start having adventures. When Luca's parents find out he's been hanging out above water, they threaten to banish him to the deep ocean, prompting him to run away.  That's when Alberto and Luca head to the seaside town, where they meet Giulia (Emma Berman), a spunky human girl with aims of winning a local triathlon where the skills involved are swimming, biking, and pasta-eating. Giulia wants to beat local bully Ercole Visconti (Saverio Raimondo), so she teams up with Luca and Alberto. The sea monster boys learn about the wonders of pesto, but friction arises when Giulia starts to dispel some of the myths Luca has absorbed about the universe.

After the form-breaking Soul, Luca can't help but feel a little small in scope. Though it's a tale that posits that sea creatures walk among us, and one that occasionally stops for dream sequences, Luca never finds anything transcendent in the story it's telling. Maybe it's asking a lot for an animated film to stir existential curiosity, but Pixar has set a high bar for itself, and the references to the Studio Ghibli oeuvre only raise expectations further. Artistically, the computer generated house style is no match for the hand drawn animation that makes something like Ponyo so extraordinary, while screenwriters Jesse Andrews and Mike Jones seem to have reached a a dead end by the time Luca reaches its conclusion. Luca and Alberto's relationship is shortchanged for easy resolution. 

None of this is to say that there aren't pleasures to be found in Luca. It's an easygoing romp with great voice performances. (A cameo from Sacha Baron Cohen is a particular delight, and gets a reprisal in a post-credits scene worth fast-forwarding to. That's the benefit of streaming, at least.) But through its influences, Luca also invites comparisons that don't do it any favors. If the Call Me by Your Name imagery has you thinking maybe Disney has actually produced a queer love story, well, then you'll be disappointed. And if the Miyazaki vibes just don't go quite far enough, you'll just be inclined to hop over to HBO Max and go straight to the source.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.