Pixar’s 24th film takes us back to the water for the first time since 2016’s Finding Dory, this time trading in California for the Italian Riviera. Luca tells the simple coming-of-age story of the titular 12-year-old boy who spends an eventful summer in the small town of Portorosso making new friends, building Vespas, and taking part in the yearly triathlon competition to win prize money and the coveted Portorosso Cup. Luca is also a sea-monster.
Underneath the surface, sea-monsters live freely, farming crabs and fish-like livestock while always keeping a watchful eye on the fishing boats passing above. When Luca (Jacob Tremblay) meets Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), a rambunctious fellow sea-monster with less on-land experience than he admits, his eyes are opened up to a world he never knew existed. Alberto reveals that sea-monsters have the ability to turn into humans when on dry land, and before long the two boys are bonding over the various gadgets and gizmos that have been scavenged over the years. Ariel had her thingamabobs and dinglehoppers. These boys have their Vespas.
The film is at its strongest when it focuses on the young friendship between Luca and Alberto, and later, Guilia (Emma Berman), a passionate and welcoming “underdog” whom the boys band together with to win the village’s triathlon. With a warmth in both its lighting and atmosphere, Luca has the power to invoke that very feeling of being a kid during a seemingly endless summer, not just playing with your friends but growing with them and shaping the person you will eventually become. Through Guilia and Alberto, Luca finds an acceptance, encouragement and kinship that is otherwise absent from his parents, Daniela (Maya Rudolph) and Lorenzo (Jim Gaffigan).
While that parental relationship sets the plot in motion – child wants more out of life, parents forbid it – it also becomes the film’s least engaging element as Luca spends most of the runtime separated from the adults running around town looking for him. As characters, Daniela and Lorenzo aren’t nearly as developed as the other Pixar parents that have come before them, and so the emotional resonance found in the studio’s other work, capable of reducing the stoniest person to tears, is absent as a result of a conflict resolved all too easily by the end.
Though the story may be relatively uncomplicated – think the straightforward nature of The Good Dinosaur rather than the existential introspection of Soul – even a second-tier Pixar film has more worth than your average animated feature. The colour palette of Portorosso’s architecture is strikingly rich and vibrant, while the character design is as pleasing as ever. Guilia’s father, all eyebrows and moustache, gets the first laugh. Machiavelli, his matching cat, gets the rest. Sequences such as the boys’ journey to Portorosso are also nothing short of magical, as Luca and Alberto swim their way to the island, transforming back and forth as they dive in and out of the water.
Where Luca will find its lasting power, however, is with the audience of fellow underdogs who will find value in its message: no matter who you may be under the surface, the path to acceptance and true happiness lies in embracing who you are. It may not be the studio’s strongest effort, but to many young and insecure personalities around the world, Luca may just be the one they need.
Disney’s Blu-ray disc also contains a handful of featurettes centred around the Pixar team’s research trip to Italy, the animation behind the transformational sequences, and the central friendships between the three main characters; as well as a collection of deleted scenes and trailers. What’s included is worthwhile (the research trip being by far the most interesting piece) but sadly, Luca’s supplemental package doesn’t measure up to the previously plentiful Pixar home-video discs.
Disney and Pixar’s Luca is available to own on Blu-ray and DVD from the 23rd of August.