Tom Santilli is a respected journalist and member of the Critics Choice Association, Detroit Film Critics Society and Online Film Critics Society since 2010. Tom is the Executive Producer and co-host of the syndicated TV show, "Movie Show Plus," which has been on the air for 20+ years in the Metro-Detroit market and Mid-West. He is also the film critic for WXYZ-TV. Twitter: @tomsantilli, Facebook & Instagram: @filmsurvivor.
Pixar is the most prestigious and well-known animation studio of the past several decades. But it isn't always a sure-thing with them, as they've produced more than a few clunkers (like "Cars 2" or "Cars 3" for example) in-between being responsible for iconic gems like the "Toy Story" films, "WALL-E" or "Inside Out." Even their 2020 release, "Soul," was a profound achievement, if not quite rising to the level of a "classic" Pixar film.
Their latest effort is "Luca," a movie that touches on some deeply important and contemporary themes of inclusion, acceptance and identity, but that - in more ways than one - is all wet.
This original story tells the tale of a young boy, "Luca," (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) who is actually not a young boy at all, but a young sea monster. He lives a mundane life under the waters off the coast of a small town in Italy, herding a school of fish and then returning home to his family's cavern, where his mom (Maya Rudolph), father (Jim Gaffigan) and grandma (Sandy Martin) keep a watchful eye on him.
For some reason, Luca has never been curious about what lies above water until now, when he meets another boy, Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), and learns that they transform into humans whenever their species leaves the water. This comes as a shock to Luca, but with the more experienced Alberto as his guide, he quickly learns the ropes of being a human (walking upright, for example) and the two mischievous boys decide to explore the seaside town where they have always been forbidden to go.
There they meet the peppy, fiery-haired little girl, Giulia (Emma Berman), who is training for some sort of bike race. If they win, they can afford to buy a motorcycle, which is one of the "human" things they've been dreaming about trying out. But they also meet the pompous Ercole (Saverio Raimondo), a slightly older teen who has won the contest for the past several years, and probably not fair-and-square. The film quickly becomes a movie about training for a race, and watching the race play out, while Luca's worrying parents become humans themselves in order to track down their missing child.
There is a fairly clever sequence in the middle of the film that really plays on the idea that Luca and Alberto are hiding their true selves in plain sight. The boys return to Giulia's house to meet her stern and intimidating father, a buff, brash fisherman who only has one arm. We assume that it was bitten off by a shark or lost in a bar fight, but it's revealed that no, he was just born that way.
This sequence is one example of "Luca" effectively handling the themes it is attempting to tackle. Giulia's father character allows them to address some of the traps associated with stereotyping people based on how they look. With the boys, their experience with the one-armed man acts as a metaphor for how the LGBTQ community are often viewed as monsters and how they are too often afraid to reveal their real identities or true selves. The humans and the sea creatures are at odds and are scared of each other, but only because they don't take the time to understand or know each other.
Unfortunately, these themes are watered-down (pun intended) and under-utilized. Then there's the "Wallace & Gromit" animation style (not the stop-animation of W&G, but the look of it) which seems a bit flat and uninspired. Pixar - who created vastly imaginative and intuitive worlds of toys, cars, bugs and monsters in the past - completely side-step creating anything interesting for this village of underwater sea people. We are given a few hints as to what is down there, but not enough. With Ariel in "The Little Mermaid," we could feel her angst and relate to her curiosity. With "Luca," it all feels rushed and pedestrian.
A little background will also explain why "Luca" may feel a bit superficial: In recent years, Disney World has been looking to revamp portions of its theme parks and has specifically targeted EPCOT's "World Showcase" as an area of improvement. This eclectic and diverse area of their Orlando park celebrates different countries from all around the world, and has long been known of as mostly an "adult" attraction area as there were never too many rides in this portion of the park...hanging out in the World Showcase was mostly about culture, art, culinary delicacies and education-based experiences. That all changed when the powers-that-be decided to create a "Frozen" ride in the area of World Showcase's Norway pavilion. It was a tremendous, popular attraction, so - hey, why not? - they decided to add a "Ratatouille" to France. Then came "Coco" for the Mexico pavilion. If you're seeing a pattern here, you're correct.
Yes, "Luca" - and Disney has not admitted this, it's just this humble critic's take on the matter - is meant to be the movie-companion for the Italy pavilion of the World Showcase, and I know this because the town is fashioned almost exactly like what you'll find at the Italy pavilion of EPCOT, down to the central fountain that plays a role in the film. The other reason I know that "Luca" started not as its own creative entity but most likely as a "hey, we need an Italy-set movie for the Italy pavilion!" sort of idea, is because there is absolutely nothing about "Luca" that requires it to be set near Italy. In fact, they could have taken this exact film and set it in Morocco, Germany, or even Canada (all other World Showcase pavilions) and it would have worked - or not worked - just the same. How is there a film about Italy that doesn't deal with commonplace Italian tropes like the concept of family, loyalty or even food? I do give the film props for including a cameo of the Italian card game known as "Scopa."
It's not a shock that Disney is looking to increase traffic and profits around one of their theme parks. Who can blame them? But from a creative standpoint, knowing that the idea of "Luca" began not with a story to tell but with a theme park area to sell, seems counter-intuitive to the kind of original and forward-thinking films that Pixar had built its reputation on over the years.
All of this added up, "Luca" is a major disappointment, because its vitally important themes about pride and identity are all but lost, washed out to sea in a movie that itself seems struggling to find its footing.
Genre: Animation, Adventure, Comedy.
Run Time: 1 hour 35 minutes.
Starring (voices of): Jacob Tremblay, Maya Rudolph, Jim Gaffigan, Giacomo Gianniotti, Emma Berman, Saverio Raimondo.
Directed by Enrico Casarosa (feature-film debut).
"Luca" is available exclusively on Disney+ beginning Friday, June 18th, 2021.