Luca: Pixar’s new film is lively and kind of funny. But it’s no Finding Nemo

Despite thin characters and loose plotting, this will still fill a gap for younger viewers

Jacob Tremblay and Jack Dylan Grazer lend their voices to Luca and Alberto – two sea monsters who look human when they’re out of the water. Photograph: Disney/Pixar

Film Title: Luca

Director: Enrico Casarosa

Starring: Jacob Tremblay, Jack Dylan Grazer, Emma Berman, Marco Barricelli, Saverio Raimondo, Maya Rudolph, Jim Gaffigan

Genre: Animation

Running Time: 95 min

Fri, Jun 18, 2021, 05:00

   

Offering further indications that the world is still not the same (and may never again be so), the latest Pixar feature again arrives exclusively on the Disney+ streaming service. The same thing happened here with Soul, but, as cinemas were then closed, it was hardly worth raising an eyebrow.

We can’t see into the brains of the distribution specialists at Disney, but, unlike its excellent, Oscar-winning predecessor, Luca doesn’t feel so out of place in this straight-to-video environment (as we used to say). The film isn’t terrible. It’s not as if it’s a Cars sequel. There is something of The Little Mermaid here. The animators go bonkers in their embrace of all things Italian. It has worthwhile messages about the trials of childhood.

But, though the flick will have much appeal for younger viewers, Luca fails in its frantic search for purpose and theme. It also doesn’t look very nice. A less kind reviewer might argue that the underwater sequences suggest a Benelux-funded rip-off of Finding Nemo, but I will settle for weary allusions to Shark Tale and step gently away from the table.

The framing mythology requires some swallowing. Luca (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) is a 13-year-old sea monster living on the seabed off the Italian Riviera. Early on, we learn that should he or his relatives step onto the shore they will become functioning humans.

Once back in the water, they return to their finned, gilled state. Luca is happy enough herding his goatfish until his tearaway pal Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer) suggests an adventure on terra firma. They have barely landed before they are struggling beneath a veritable avalanche of Italian cultural references. The boys become obsessed with Vespas and enter a race with a mind to raising funds for their own scooter. There is a bit about pasta and how to eat it. We see the cover of Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio.

At one stage, for no real reason, somebody gestures towards a photograph of Marcello Mastroianni. The filmmakers have spoken rather grandly of Rossellini’s Stromboli and Visconti’s La Terra Trema, and, to be fair, fans of those neo-realist films may sense echoes in the landscapes (if not in the plot).

We need not tarry too long on the supposed parallels with Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name. Some months ago, wiseacres seized upon a few stills and the odd synopsis – two chaps have a magical summer in an idyllic Italian village – to conclude that Pixar was offering a variation on that admired gay drama. Was it not even named for the director? No, it wasn’t.

Though the theory may make for a nice meme, a cursory glance at Luca will instantly dispel such mischievous speculation. The boys fall in with a pretty girl. They fall out with one another. The race offers a sort of Bash Street Kids (Bash Strada Ragazzi?) finale with bumps, crashes and dirty tricks. It could hardly be more mainstream fare.

Director Enrico Casarosa based the look on his own childhood in Genoa and, if it is nods to Liguria you require, the film will not disappoint. But the thin characters, loose plotting and shaky internal logic are not up to the standards of classic Pixar. Why do certain characters use American accents and others broad Italian? Luca himself speaks in the same North American suburban as every young Disney protagonist going back to Pinocchio, whereas Ercole Visconti, the sleek teenage villain, is allowed broken English and drawn-out vowels. It donna maka the sense – as Ercole wouldn’t quite say.

All that ill-spirited complaint registered, it is hard to deny that Luca will fill a gap for less-demanding younger viewers. It’s well-meaning. It’s lively. It’s moderately funny. But it is no Finding Nemo.

 On Disney+ from June 18th