On Twitter, Disney/Pixar’s Luca has already been branded with the “unworthy” tag. Why is that, you may ask? To answer that question, let’s pretend you’re unaware that Twitter loves a punching bag. For starters, Soul won last year’s Oscar for Animated Feature. Before that, Toy Story 4 won. Yes, Twitter rapturously applauded the win for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse in 2018, but that was the rare non-Disney win for an animated feature. Before that, you have to go all the way back to 2011 for Rango‘s win to find a non-Disney film receiving the Oscar.
That excludes fan-favorite / independent animated features such as last year’s great Wolfwalkers or Laika’s Missing Link. Twitter argues that these films deserve the wins over seemingly mass-produced Disney product. They’re more adventurous or stylish or independently rendered. Any non-Disney studio emerges as the eternal underdog, and Twitter loves its underdog nearly as much as it loves its punching bag.
But here’s the thing. It’s wildly unfair to attack Luca because other Disney/Pixar films before it received Oscars. Plus, not every animated feature that Disney/Pixar releases aspires to an Oscar win. Sometimes, they can be just really charming stories that should never be judged based on their Oscar potential before they’re even widely seen. I know, it’s crazy. Movies just can’t be movies. They have to be seen through the lens of an Oscar campaign.
And maybe that’s ultimately Disney/Pixar’s fault. After all, Pixar fashioned some of the very best animated films of all time. Naturally, there’s an expectation that each output will join that legacy. Soul came extraordinarily close, if just a hair shy of Ratatouille or Wall-E.
So, what to make of Luca, Oscar aside?
Luca is a very fine film. Does it belong in the pantheon of the Great Pixar Films? I don’t personally think so, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it for what it was. I’m a sucker for a coming of age story. Growing up isolated on a farm in eastern North Carolina, I longed for the kind of bond and friendship on display in the film. Movies filled that gap to an extent, but I was a weird, lonely, strange child more comfortable talking to adults than to kids my own age. So, I’m a bit in the bag for something like Luca.
Directed by Enrico Casarosa, Luca tells the story of two young sea monsters (Luca and Alberto voiced by Jacob Tremblay and Jack Dylan Grazer) who venture into the seaside town of Portorosso. There, they meet local girl Giulia (Emma Berman) who befriends them and helps them train for a major race – sort of a Pixar triathlon. The goal? To win a Vespa, Luca and Alberto’s object of obsession. The catch? They turn human when dry, but immediately revert to sea monster when splashed with even a cup of water.
Unlike most Pixar outings, Luca feels squarely aimed at younger audiences. It lacks the deeply resonant theming of their best efforts. Instead, it’s a fairly straightforward coming of age story between the two boys. Both isolated for various reasons, Luca and Alberto lack the key emotional maturity that close friendships can bring. And people crave the most what they lack, so their growing bond forms the backbone of the film.
That leads a lot of people to assume that this is Pixar’s first gay-themed film. While the subject never materializes, audiences will take from it what they will. Even if the subtext exists, I’m not sure the characters as written can support it. While Alberto is older and more worldly, Luca is immature and inexperienced. It takes the course of the film to evolve him into a braver, more adventurous person – a trait common in coming of age stories. Now, what happens after the film as Luca matures? That’s up to your imagination, but it would be wrong to put that onto Luca as portrayed in the film.
As this is Pixar, the animation looks fantastic. The blues of the Italian Riviera are gorgeously rendered. The stucco buildings of Portorosso hold these vibrant, earthy colors. The sky – both blue and nighttime stars – pops in mind-blowing ways. It’s really a gorgeous film that understands the Italian landscape as much as it understands the love of Italian pasta, music, and gelato.
In the end, Luca works best if you’re inclined, as I am, to appreciate the journey of a coming of age story. It starts of pleasantly enough, perhaps even slightly slow, but then builds to a tremendous, applause-worthy conclusion. That’s one of the things that Pixar does best. It engages you with seemingly slight sequences along the way. What you don’t realize until the film’s end is that they’re gradually endearing you to their characters, letting the emotion of the moment come slowly, quietly. If the first two acts are fine, then thankfully they nail the landing with such aplomb.
Just don’t go into the film thinking it’s immediately the front runner for an Oscar. It’s not that kind of film.
And that’s ok.
Luca drops Friday exclusively on Disney+.