Movies · Reviews

‘Luca’ is a Bright and Sunny Breath of Fresh Air

Santo Gorgonzola! This sea monster’s coming-of-age is a sweet and funny time.
Luca Pixar movie
By  · Published on June 16th, 2021

Pixar Animation Studios’ track record over the years is undeniable. Starting with their feature debut, Toy Story (1995), their movies have earned both box-office success and critical acclaim. Each of their releases is somebody’s favorite, but the deeper, heavier, more mature efforts — think Wall-E (2008), Up (2009), Inside Out (2015) — tend to be the most revered. Pixar’s latest movie, Luca, leans far lighter in tone and effect, but it’s no less memorable. The studio’s twenty-fourth feature is a vibrant and warm vacation for your heart reminding you to cherish both your individuality and those who love you for it.

Luca Paguro (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) lives a simple life beneath the sea with his family, but he yearns for something more. The surface calls to him, and while he rightfully fears the land monsters known to frequent above he can’t help but be intrigued by the human objects that fall to the ocean floor on occasion. An alarm clock, a phonograph, an antique diving suit — that last one comes with a boy like himself inside, and when he follows Alberto Scorfano (Jack Dylan Grazer) to the surface he’s shocked as his scale-covered peer morphs into a human boy. Of course, Luca transforms too as it’s a trait all his people share when dry, and soon he and Alberto are exploring life in the coastal Italian town of Portorosso.

They make a friend in young Giulia (Emma Berman), a self-described underdog whose summer visits to the town see her treated as an outsider, and the three find a common purpose in an upcoming triathlon featuring cycling, swimming, and pasta eating. She wants to beat the local bully, and the boys want money to buy a Vespa so they can travel the world — but every moment the pair spends out of the water is a moment they risk being discovered for what they really are. Then again, would that be so bad?

Luca is entertainment for all ages as its bright colors and fast-moving action will appeal to the kids while the humor, themes, and quieter moments should speak to older viewers. It’s a sweet, fun tale about friendship, acceptance, and self-confidence, and while deeper meaning can be inferred its surface-level themes remain affecting enough to wring moisture from your eyes as Luca puts it all on the line to reach for his dreams and hold on to the ones he loves.

A word of warning for those putting up a serious, disaffected front to those around you — the final minutes of Luca might just lead to leaky eyes (this is a Pixar movie, after all), and wet cheeks might reveal the big softy you’re hiding within. That’s nothing to be ashamed of, of course, but be prepared to wipe them dry quickly so you can focus on booking a trip to Italy sooner rather than later. While the movie’s animation style sits just this side of “realistic,” the sights, sounds, and smells of coastal Italy come through the screen in endless waves. Okay, you can’t actually smell the warm, buttery pasta or freshly baked bread, but you’ll almost think you can anyway.

Combined with Dan Romer‘s alternately inviting and playful score, Luca‘s bright, colorful animation works to create a moving postcard capturing a relaxed environment you’ll want to visit immediately. The sun shines down and warms the stone streets, the sounds of children playing ball in the town square echo against the buildings, and the ocean laps the sandy shore setting the pace for a life well-lived. It’s a summer day from your own childhood packed into ninety-five minutes, and you’ll be grateful for the reminder.

Curiosity drives Luca to the surface and beyond, but it’s his friendship with Alberto that becomes the movie’s biggest thread. Alberto lives alone on a small island off the coast, counting the days since his father went away, and while he talks a big, confident game it’s Luca who helps open his arms and heart to others. It’s a fair trade as Alberto teaches Luca to trust himself and ignore the self-doubt that’s held him back. “Silencio Bruno!” becomes their rallying cry — Bruno being the name they give the naysayer within all of us — and it’s a life lesson more of us could follow as negativity too often weighs us down in our daily endeavors.

It’s observations like these that are captured both in big swings and in more contemplative sequences where the boys are given time to simply exist. They play, they stare at the stars above, they bond by just being together. While some animated fare for kids insists on rushing from one gag to the next, Luca wants viewers and characters alike to pause and simply breathe in the fresh air. That’s no small thing, and it’s part of what puts the film closer to the likes of Laika and Studio Ghibli than Pixar’s own parent company, Walt Disney.

Luca and Alberto, along with Giulia, become underdogs worth cheering for — the kids who dress “weird” or act different or don’t meet someone else’s standards — and it all plays beautifully into the triathlon’s bicycle race finale pitting Luca against the Italian terror Ercole Visconti (Saverio Raimondo). Fans of Peter Yates’ brilliant film Breaking Away (1979) will feel a kinship here, and that’s even before you learn that director Enrico Casarosa showed that movie’s script to Luca‘s writers as inspiration.

Writers Jesse Andrews (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, 2015) and Mike Jones (Soul, 2020) clearly took that to heart, but other themes and ideas are equally at play. The concept of monsters being feared for their differences before being accepted for their similarities — someone tell Clive Barker to add Luca to his watchlist — is evident as well with the entire town on the hunt for the aquatic creatures. The boys face them down at one point declaring they’re not scared, and the reply is as honest as they come. “No,” says the harpoon-wielding human, “but we’re afraid of you.”

Both Tremblay and Grazer do good work capturing the eager innocence of children in unfamiliar territory, and they’re joined by a handful of veterans in supporting roles. Maya Rudolph and Jim Gaffigan voice Luca’s parents while Sandy Martin and Sacha Baron Cohen give grumbly vocals to other family members. Others aren’t as recognizable, but Raimondo deserves a special shout-out as his Ercole is a hilariously mean delight.

Luca is a simpler, lighter movie from Pixar, but that’s hardly something to look down upon as being of inherently lesser value. It’s funny, warm, and reminds us that we’re all worth far more than our darker moments sometimes suggest. Expect to visit this destination more than once.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.