It’s tempting to call Disney and Pixar’s Luca a small story. In the 26-year history of Pixar’s animated movies, characters have traversed the cosmos, the oceans, the depths of the human mind, even the barriers between life and death. A Pixar movie, especially in recent years, is an epic. With the studio’s trademark emotion and whimsy, it excavates ideas about mental illness, grief, purpose, family, the passage of time—the big stuff. A light comedy set in a small Italian town about three young friends who compete in a local bike race without the existentialism? Am I in the wrong house?
OK, I’m leaving crucial details out. Luca is a fantasy story that still fits loosely in the Pixar mold, with magical beings who transform, bridge worlds, and maybe show us a bit about what it means to be human. Yet Luca’s aims are also simpler than that—and beautiful in that simplicity. Its greatest pleasures are in the warmth of its sun-baked, seaside setting; in the godly sight of a home-cooked bowl of trenette al pesto; in the stomach-lurching thrill of racing too fast downhill in a rickety scooter with your best friend.
It’s reasonable for animation fans to nurse certain grudges against Pixar. By now, the studio has the manipulation of adults’ emotions down to a startlingly efficient science. And its steamrolling dominance at mainstream awards shows has at times robbed deserving and more daring but smaller, less moneyed studios of their shine. (Cartoon Saloon’s Wolfwalkers deserved the Best Animated Feature Oscar last year; I will not be apologizing for this opinion.)
Luca, while hardly a radical or transgressive work, arrives then as a much-needed respite from the Pixar formula. You may not walk away from it pondering the nature of the soul. But maybe you’ll look up at a tree’s branches swaying in the wind, or turn your face up to the sun for a minute, or devote idle thoughts to the stars and planets at night. (You’ll, at the very least, begin urgently craving pasta. The food of the film is animated in such gorgeous and delicate detail, it’s almost cruel.) Without being cloying or tragic or didactic, Luca encourages the act of being present—of silencing the negative voices in our heads for a moment and living.
The movie perhaps owes less to its Pixar predecessors than to the work of Studio Ghibli, the legendary Japanese animation house for which Luca wears its love on its sleeve. It expresses that not just in its Miyazaki-like devotion to the art of food. It’s in details like the name of the movie’s Italian Riviera town (Portorosso, an intentional echo of Miyazaki’s Italy-set Porco Rosso) and trains that seem to link faraway dreams to reality. More, it shines through in its tender depiction of childhood love, friendship, and self-actualization.
It’s still a more plot-driven and less fantastically weird movie than most Studio Ghibli joints, to be sure. But at a crisp 96 minutes, most as sunny as the ’60s Italian pop songs sprinkled throughout, Luca is a delight from its first few frames. We meet a timid shepherd boy named Luca (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) who faithfully tends to his flock and listens to his overprotective parents. He happens to be what humans call a “sea monster.” His underwater home and civilization are at odds with the human town nearby, which demonizes and hunts his kind at every opportunity. Luca is told as much again and again. But his mother’s warnings never dampen the light in his eyes when he looks up at the water’s surface or spots a sunken artifact of human life on the ocean floor.
Rather than break out into song about being part of our world, Luca instead (literally) stumbles onto a jarring truth: whenever he leaves the water, he transforms into a human. And while he’s in human form, even the smallest speck of skin will revert to its natural blue and green if splashed with water. The revelation comes courtesy of Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), a fellow sea monster boy as confident in his skins, both fleshy and scaly, as Luca is awkward and terrified.
Every shy, indoor kid at some point has a friend like Alberto—the kind who seems to know everything and who pushes them out of their comfort zones. Alberto introduces Luca to the pleasures of life above the surface: The sun, the trees, the stars, the sensation of two lungs full of air. Director Enrico Casarosa often places us behind Luca’s eyes, urging us to revel in the miracle of breathing alongside him. Through his relationship with Alberto, Luca learns to (momentarily) stifle the nagging voices that have kept him from adventure all his life. Alberto calls the voices “Bruno,” coining a mantra as endearing as it is effective: “Silenzio, Bruno!”
Together, the two dream of owning the ultimate symbol of freedom: a Vespa, which Alberto promises can take them “anywhere in the world.” His breezy explanations of how the world works may be wonky—he assures Luca that stars are in fact anchovies and the moon is a fish—but they make for the film’s most luminous scenes. Fantasy sequences unfold seamlessly as Alberto sends Luca’s imagination whizzing. Suddenly, we’re speeding through a field of “wild Vespas” leaping like antelope. A wooden ramp launches us past the clouds into the night sky, where glowing anchovies, led by a titanic yellow fish, are all close enough to touch.
Luca’s wide-eyed admiration of Alberto’s independence fails to pick up on what goes unsaid. Alberto is alone only because he has to be—his father, the only parent he mentions, never returns to the abandoned tower where he left his son. Striking out together into Portorosso in search of a real Vespa then becomes a mutual goal with unique significance to each boy. To Luca, a Vespa is a way of breaking free from the confines of home. To Alberto, it’s a step toward finding a place he can call home at all.
That Luca doesn’t pick up on Alberto’s loneliness is why he can’t understand his friend’s jealousy when a goofy human girl named Giulia (Emma Berman) befriends them in the town. Where Alberto had become the authority on life above water, Giulia slowly replaces him. She explains to Luca that stars, for instance, are not actually anchovies, and there exists a wondrous place called “school” where Luca’s curiosity can flourish. The three sign up together for a children’s triathlon, in the hope of winning enough money to buy a run-down Vespa. But it’s a dangerous task in a town so violently hostile to sea creatures—let alone for two boys who just learned how to walk a few days ago.
The stakes in Luca are then relatively small: three kids try to win a bicycle race and navigate the trials of loyalty and friendship. Without Pixar’s usual tearjerker tactics, the effectiveness of that plot may just sneak up on you. I couldn’t tell you at what point Luca and Alberto’s friendship began to feel sacred, nor when Giulia’s bonds with them moved me. But Luca shows there’s truth in that kind of simplicity—and it can be profound, even without the existential crises.