It’s been a rough pandemic year for the Pixar Animation studios. The Emeryville, California based animation giant has set a high bar for the industry over the past quarter century, and 2020 was set to be a big year for them. They had two highly anticipated animated features lined up that were set to continue their hot streak at the box office. The first of the two, Onward, made it to cinemas in early March of 2020. And then the whole world came crashing down. Movie theaters were shut for an indeterminable amount of time, which would end up being over a year in the end, and every movie playing immediately before the shut down suddenly had their box office returns cut short. Onward, the last major studio film released before the shutdown, wound up with the lowest box office totals of any Pixar movie to date, but it was clear that it was not the films fault. Like everything else in the 14 months that followed, Hollywood had to gauge a whole new way to measure success under the new pandemic affected conditions. Would Onward had performed better if the pandemic hadn’t gotten in the way? We’ll never know. However, once the pandemic hit, parent company Disney made the controversial decision to accelerate Onward’s streaming debut on Disney+, foregoing the usual 3 month exclusive theatrical window, just so that people who missed out on seeing it in the theater would have a chance to watch it at home. Though the movie theaters were worried that this would change the dynamic of the exhibition market, they at the same time had little say in the matter. Onward made it’s debut and for all accounts it performed well enough for Disney to do the same with a couple other films waiting in the wings. Frozen II (2019) and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019) saw their streaming premieres also accelerated, though they benefitted from full box office performances beforehand. And movies that Disney didn’t mind skipping theaters all together with (Artemis Fowl and The One and Only Ivan) were also brought directly to Disney+. But the question remained, what was Disney going to do with the other highly anticipated Pixar animated film for the year 2020; that being the Pete Doctor-directed Soul.
Soul was undoubtedly the more ambitious of the two 2020 movies, dealing with heavier themes than Onward and with a more ethereal canvas of design and concept. It’s also clear having seen it that Soul was a movie made for the big screen, with it’s widescreen presentation and ambitious scale. But, with the pandemic shutdowns extending well beyond what anyone thought was possible, Disney and Pixar needed to make a hard choice. Do they continue to keep pushing Soul back on the calendar, or do they skip theaters all together. Soul did move a couple times off it’s original June 2020 release date. It first landed in late August, and then again moving to Thanksgiving weekend. With theaters still closed all the way to the holidays, Pixar ultimately made the tough choice to put Soul out exclusively on Disney+, without a premium fee to offset lost box office. It was determined that Disney would benefit with the extra boost in subscriptions by having a Pixar title premiere on their platform, and given the previous success over the year with other premieres, and the fact that any more delays would work against other movies in the pipeline, the tough choice had to be made. It must had been hard especially for Pixar head Pete Doctor, since Soul was his own baby. But, despite missing out in theaters, Soul still found it’s audience, and led to Doctor winning a record third Oscar for Best Animated Feature. But, the precedent set by putting Soul out on streaming led to Disney feeling more comfortable with the model, and it was announced soon after that the next Pixar movie in line, Luca, would also be skipping a theatrical release in favor of streaming. This left a lot of people at Pixar rightfully upset, especially by the fact that it was not getting the hybrid streaming/theatrical release that Disney’s own Raya and the Last Dragon received. And with movie theaters finally reopening, and showing signs of a quick recovery, it seemed like Disney was making a shortsighted choice, robbing a movie that would play magnificently on the big screen a chance to prove itself. But, as it stands, Luca is making it’s debut this weekend in living rooms across the world rather than the cinema, and now we can determine for ourselves whether or not Disney’s choice was a sound one or the wrong one.
Luca takes place on the picturesque Italian Riviera, near and within a small little fishing village called Portorusso. Unbeknownst to the fishermen who sail the coastline of the their village, there is a whole other community beneath the waves; one made entirely of sea monsters. In this community, we find Luca Paguro (Jacob Tremblay), a timid young sea monster who is afraid of what lies beyond the water’s surface. However, curiosity leads him to discover a bunch of artifacts from the human world, which he discovers are being collected by another young sea monster named Alberto Scorfano (Jack Dylan Grazer). To Luca’s surprise and amazement, he watches Alberto carefreeingly leaving the ocean and walking on land. Alberto forces Luca up with him and the newcomer soon discovers that his scale-ly skin transforms on land to human like skin when it’s dry. Alberto helps Luca learn more about the human world and the two form a friendship, though it’s kept secret from Luca’s protective mother Daniela (Maya Rudolph) and father Lorenzo (Jim Gaffigan). When Luca’s parents learn of his deception and threaten to send him to live with his deep sea Uncle Ugo (Sacha Baron Cohen), Luca runs away and convinces Alberto that they should pursue their shared dream; riding across the world on a Vespa scooter. They make their way to Portorusso, in the hopes of getting a Vespa of their own. There they meet a young human girl named Giulia (Emma Berman), who is obsessed with winning the Portorusso Cup challenge, especially if it means besting the town bully, Ercole Visconti (Servio Raimondo). Giulia takes the two in with the hopes of helping them train as a team. At Giulia’s home, they meet her father Massimo, a one-armed fisherman and cook who’s got his eye on slaying the rumored sea monsters in the area, as does his suspecting cat Machiavelli, whose got his keen eye on the two outsiders. Meanwhile Daniela and Lorenzo search the town for their lost son. For Luca and Alberto, the challenge becomes whether or not they can keep their secret safe and achieve their dream in the human world, and more crucially, can they keep themselves dry in a town where water is literally all around them.
Regardless of how it makes it’s way to the audience, there is no doubt that the bar is always high when it comes to Pixar. They are one of the standard bearers in Animation, in a class that is only matched with sister studio Disney and few others; possibly smaller players like Laika and Studio Ghibli. Especially coming off the heals of a beloved movie like Soul, there is a lot of expectations about what Pixar can bring to the table next with a movie like Luca. So it is with great relief that Pixar not only clears the high bar with Luca, it does so in spectacular fashion. Luca is an all around triumph from beginning to end. The movie was directed by Enrico Casarosa, a long time story artist at Pixar making his directorial debut. Luca clearly is a love letter to the director’s native homeland, where he spent his childhood growing up in the coastal city of Genoa on Italy’s majestic Portofino coastline. Though not the first time that Pixar has infused such a cultural presence into one of their stories (see also 2012’s Brave and 2017’s Coco), Luca takes on an especially personal touch, with so much attention to detail put into the world of this story. The movie is set in a particular time and place, that being Italy in the late 50’s and early 60’s, which I’m sure is a very intentional choice on Casarosa’s part. The movie is heavily inspired by Italian New Wave cinema, and in particular, the movies of Federico Fellini. You can feel the influence of Fellini throughout the movie, from the colorful characters to the lush coastal setting, to even the music choices. Casarosa even throws in some charming Easter eggs for cinephiles out there, like movie posters for Roman Holiday (1953) and La Starda (1953) plastered on the walls. Other cinematic influences are plentiful as well, like Machiavelli the Cat who I swear is designed exactly to be nod to the animation style of Hayao Miyazaki. Suffice to say, the movie is a feast for the senses in the best way that Pixar knows how to do.
But on top of that, it also features a wonderful story built upon an intriguing concept. Essentially, it’s a story about breaking free of barriers, both internal and external. Luca begins his journey unaware of the larger world around, and the potential for adventures that he may have. One of the crucial things that he picks up with his experiences with Alberto is to push against those inhibitions that cause him to be fearful of the world. In a funny explanation, Alberto calls that inner voice that tells Luca “no” about everything Bruno, and he instructs Luca to repeat to himself, “Silencio Bruno” as a way of moving past his fears. Over time, “Silencio Bruno” becomes a mantra for the two boys and it enables them to grow bolder over the course of the movie. It’s a very uplifting element to the story, and as we see, Luca is far more brave than he ever thought he would be, which enables him to move beyond the limits that others have forced upon him. Though Enrico Casarossa insists it was never intended this in his original story, and perhaps it might be my own self reading too much into the movie as well, but I sensed a subtle queer subtext in Luca’s story. Trust me, the friendship between Luca and Alberto is strictly platonic, but there is something very familiar in how both of the boys overcome societies barriers in order to find acceptance for who they really are, especially in a town that views them first and foremost as monsters. It’s also a story about Luca discovery his true self by finding friends who encourage his adventurous side, and help him to break free from a sheltered life where he might not have known what he was really capable of. To many LGBTQ people in the audience, this will ring true with many coming out journeys that each of them have had. Though it wasn’t intended to be the message, I still think Pixar wouldn’t dismiss such a reading either, as Disney has at times leaned into the many different queer readings of their own films like The Little Mermaid (1989) or Frozen (2013), without ever discouraging it. It’s not quite a PG-rated Call Me By Your Name (2017), but I think there might be something worthwhile there that many queer people, especially the youngest one, will find uplifting in Luca’s story.
The movie’s characters are also uniformly excellent. Luca is an especially endearing lead, as his curiosity to discover new things is delightfully entertaining. Jacob Tremblay brings an especially exuberant vocal performance to the character, bringing out all the different angles of the character in a joyful, heartwarming way. He deftly manages to capture Luca’s timidness perfectly early one and as he grows more bolder, we feel that growth within the character through that performance. His vocal work is also equally matched by Jack Dylan Grazer’s Alberto, where he perfectly embodies that identity of that kind of older “bad influence” kid that we all know. Like Jacob, Jack also perfectly finds that fully fleshed out character inside, managing to make the character hilarious but also vulnerable when he needs to be. Emma Berman’s Giulia rounds out the trio with a wonderfully exuberant performance as well. I especially like how she slips into Italian frequently whenever she grows frustrated, like she’s using it as a substitute for cursing. Her tomboyish personality really works well off of the personalities of Luca and Alberto, especially with the fact that the two often don’t know how to respond around her sometimes unexpected personality quirks. The always reliable Maya Rudolph is perfect here in the role of the mother, and Jim Gaffigan is hilariously subdued in his role as the father. We also get a quick but hilariously demented cameo from Sacha Baron Cohen as Luca’s bottom feeding Uncle. If the movie has a weak link, it’s the villainous Ercole, who in many ways is just an afterthought in the story, as the filmmakers believed that the movie needed a more definable antagonist. He’s serviceable, but not much else; a far cry from some of Pixar’s more memorable baddies like Syndrome from The Incredibles (2004) and Lotso from Toy Story 3 (2010). I also want to specially point out the cat Machiavelli, who is a straight-up scene stealer in Luca. Some of the biggest laughs I had were the glaring stares he gives to Luca and Alberto in the movie. Overall, another beautiful cast of characters to add to the growing Pixar family.
It should also be said that this is one of the most absolutely beautiful movies that Pixar has ever made, and that’s saying a lot. The real life influence of the Italian coastal setting was no doubt instrumental in creating the world of this film. It evokes a definitive time and place, but also imbues it with a storybook like feel. That is also true with the designs of the characters as well. These character models are far more stylized that what we see with most Pixar characters. The character’s features are fare less contoured and more rounded out, with Luca’s head almost taking on a tomato-like shape. It perfectly mixes with the different designs that Luca and Alberto go through as they transform between sea creature and human, allowing the audience to never get confused about who they are seeing on screen at any time. I also like that the quirky character designs extend to the humans as well, like they are pulled out of a story book as well. The way that everyone is animated is also more cartoonish and stylized than the average Pixar movie, which more often tries to go for realism in their character movement. Even so, this movie is still unmistakably Pixar to it’s very core. You’ll especially find it in how they still manage to convey deep emotion, even through the exaggerated character models. Though it doesn’t quite tug on the heartstrings as hard as say Up (2009) or Coco (2017), there are still some beautifully emotional moments in this movie, especially in the closing moments. It may not be a tear-jerker, but it will make you feel especially warm inside as you see the characters find their place in the larger world, and in some cases, find that they must leave something behind. It pretty much delivers everything that you want from a Pixar movie, but it does so in a way you don’t quite expect. I wouldn’t be surprised if more Pixar movies in the future adopt a more stylized look like what we see in Luca, because this movie certainly showed that the studio can still deliver no matter how much one of their movies breaks the mold.
I certainly feel like Luca stands as one of the better Pixar movies overall. It may not be in the top flight, but it is certainly not far behind and many lightyears beyond what most other studios are making. It just really saddens me that most people are not going to be enjoying this movie on a big screen, which it should honestly be playing on right now. Living in Los Angeles, I fortunately managed to see it the right way as one, and only one, theater in town has this playing on a big screen; that being the historic El Capitan on Hollywood Boulevard (owned and operated by Disney, of course). Seeing the movie that way probably helped me to appreciate the movie even more, and it is absolutely worth the effort if you live near Hollywood and there are still tickets available for it’s lone, single week engagement. For anyone else, please watch this movie on the largest television that you have. Watching it on anything smaller or handheld will really rob you of the majesty of this beautiful film. It’s just too bad that a worthy animated movie like Luca is being relegated to streaming while a mediocre film like Dreamworks’ Spirit Untamed is getting a wide theatrical release. Yeah, sure, Spirit’s lackluster box office is not something to instill confidence on a box office that is still in recovery mode. But had Luca been given a shot, it might have ignited the box office in ways that other movies have failed to. This may end up being a tale of a missed opportunity on Pixar’s part, and I hope that this is not the preferred mode of release for all Pixar movies moving forward. It was a hard pill to swallow for Soul too, but the conditions were understandable. It makes less sense now as times are changing, and Disney has already proven success with movies already released through their hybrid model like Raya and Cruella (2021). In any case, Luca should not be missed. It’s another triumphant original for the legendary studio, with a heartwarming story, which may also resonate with subtly with LGBTQ audiences who recognize a coming out story when they see one, even if it’s young sea monsters leaving the ocean instead of a closet. Regardless of it’s intended message, it’s a beautifully constructed crowd pleaser that everyone should see. And given that it’s about venturing outside of the comforts of a sheltered life, it’s a story that gives us more hope in a post pandemic world. Without a doubt, a certifiable win for Pixar and a movie that deserves more than the circumstances it’s been given. Silencio Bruno!!!