The target audience for Pixar’s new animated trifle, Luca, will likely be at an advantage over their parents. While I’m sure all audiences will be thrilled to have this new cinematic distraction to watch at home on Disney+ (and without a surcharge!), the younger you are, the better the chances you won’t notice glaring similarities to The Little Mermaid from 32 years ago—and the easier it’ll be to accept Luca for what it is.
Because, yes, we once again have a Disney movie about a sea creature or two who want to be part of your world, and once again the main character dodges fishermen, inquisitive snoops, and the judgment of his parents. While Luca does do some things differently—particularly by celebrating young friendships and the sheer gorgeousness of the Italian coast—it cannot help but appear lesser when compared to the legacies it stands on, both at Walt Disney Animation and Pixar. Which is a shame since the movie remains a bemusing, if slight, 90-minute diversion when divorced from its heavy expectations.
The focal point of Luca is a sea monster by the same name. The young lad (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) lives under the sea with his overly protective mother Daniela (Maya Rudolph) and his absent-minded father Lorenzo (Jim Gaffigan). Both parents want what’s best for Luca, and that means staying away from the surface and the dangerous dwellers up there they call “land monsters.”
But one day Luca follows another sea monster named Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer) to the shoreline. Like Luca, Alberto’s a teenager, albeit a rebellious one who’s mysteriously alone. Claiming to be an expert on all things land-based, Alberto convinces Luca to join him in turning into a human and walking around on two legs. Before long Luca is running away for a wild weekend on the Amalfi coast, and perhaps longer after he makes his first human friend in Giulia (Emma Berman), a young girl who teaches him the thrill of Vespa racing and the greater excitement of book-learning. All of these dreams are built on sand though, with Giulia’s sea monster-hunting papa standing in as the incoming wave.
The most impressive element of Luca is its visuals. As another latter-day Pixar effort, the movie is unsurprisingly dazzling, with the cartoonish characters somehow blending seamlessly with seaside vistas that are nearly photorealistic. Right down to catching the shimmer of diamonds off the waves, the movie plays like a travelogue for Italy, as well as an exquisitely crafted love letter to director Enrico Casarosa’s homeland.
The 1950s period setting of the film is also a nice touch, if perhaps as much a concession to Americans’ romantic ideas of Italy as an actual paean to that era. Indeed, one might half expect Sophia Loren to walk by at any moment. And with all the talk of Vespas, there’s a fittingly winking poster for Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck’s Roman Holiday onscreen at one point. Even the best running gag in the film—a suspicious and violent cat with a little mustache of whiskers—looks like a leftover from Il Duce’s Italy a decade earlier.
And yet, as a fully formed entertainment, there’s little about Luca which will capture the imagination, at least for older viewers who typically expect more from a Pixar release. As aforementioned, the first act unflatteringly recalls memories of The Little Mermaid. And every time Luca talks about going to the surface, or his folks speak about the wonders of living under the sea, the noticeable lack of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman songs leaves Luca wanting.
Once the film readjusts its narrative to being land-based, those specific comparisons begin to dry out, but the picture never digs into any deeper or more emotionally resonant themes that audiences who were wooed by Coco or shattered by Soul will anticipate. In actuality, if the first half repeats the beats of Disney’s preeminent 1980s animated picture, then the back half retreads a typical ‘80s teen sports movie, complete with a set of snobby rich kid bullies whom Luca will have to face during the big race.
The whole thing feels small and, unfairly or not, beneath Pixar’s reputation. Still, none of this makes Luca a bad movie. It’s deafeningly adequate, in fact, and a serviceable way for parents to enjoy a family movie night. Younger viewers should particularly enjoy its ovations toward the power of transformative friendships—be they of your first great buddy who loves you for you, or the one who inspires you to become something more.
As Pixar’s weakest movie since The Good Dinosaur, Luca can still fit the bill in the right context. It’s just a disappointment then that Pixar’s whale of a tale turned out to be more of a guppy.
Luca premieres on Disney+ on Friday, June 18.