As a kid, there was nothing quite like the feeling of summer and the freedom it provided. The idea that, for the next two months, the world could really be yours. As a concept, "summer" is so abstract a feeling that most films have a hard time capturing it. They can depict summer activities or the end of the school year, but very few actually accomplish the task of transporting you back to that time of innocence and wonder. Disney and Pixar's Luca does just that, delivering waves upon waves of that joyous summer feeling. Its pure heart, warm colors, and stunning imagery encompass everything beautiful about the season it depicts, making it one of Pixar's most delightful films in years.
Luca, based on the childhood of director Enrico Casarosa, follows the story of a young sea monster (Jacob Tremblay) who lives off the coast of Italy, near a town filled with people who are terrified of his kind. He winds up crossing paths with another sea monster, Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), and learns that life on the surface isn't so bad, especially since sea monsters take on the appearance of humans when they leave the water. In an attempt to get away from his controlling parents (Maya Rudolph, Jim Gaffigan), Luca heads to the town of Portorosso with Alberto, where they befriend a girl named Gulia (Emma Berman) and attempt to win an annual summer competition.
Luca doesn't exactly feel like a traditional Pixar movie. The animation is every bit as jaw-dropping as you've come to expect from the Disney-owned studio (it's honestly even better looking than most Pixar entries), but it doesn't have the heady concepts or emotional gut-punches people associate with the studio. This film doesn't put you through an existential crisis when you think about its plot, nor is there a heart-wrenching plot twist in the third act that will have you weeping through the rest of the film. It's not that kind of movie.
Some people will probably claim that this makes Luca a lesser Pixar entry, but I don't believe that could be further from the truth. No, it doesn't make you think about your impending doom like the past two Toy Story films. It certainly doesn't have an Up-like sequence that will make you burn through a box of tissues in a 10-minute span. I think that's what actually makes Luca such a great Pixar film; this is a movie about discovery, friendship, and empathy. It's about celebrating what makes people different and about a joy that can only be found through summertime adventures.
Luca excels in its ability to deliver on that joy. A lot of that success comes from the animation and the brilliant design of the Italian Riviera. The animators created a place that doesn't necessarily feel realistic, like the New York City settings in Soul, but they somehow still feel authentic. They feel lived-in. The animation welcomes you to Portorosso and makes you want to stay forever.
Part of that inviting and "lived-in" feel comes from Dan Romer's effervescent score. It's simple and serene, transforming the waters and landscapes into musical notes. I truly haven't stopped thinking about that music since the film ended.
Of all of Luca's strengths, none are greater than the story of empathy that encompasses its three lead characters. They learn to put their own fears aside for the benefit of a new friend, and they embrace the grand adventure of life together, no matter what kind of hatred or harm stands in their way. It's a perfect display of what friendship looks like. Yes, there are moments where their friendship is called into question, but seeing the ways in which Luca, Alberto, and Gulia resolve those issues only strengthens their tale.
There's really only one major issue with Luca, and it's that a film this gorgeous isn't premiering on the biggest screen possible. To be clear, that's not a flaw with the film itself it all, but rather the release plan dictated by the studio. A Pixar film should never make its debut on a TV, especially one as visually striking as Luca. The landscapes and seaside towns created for Luca represent some of the most beautiful work in Pixar's long and illustrious history, and it's a shame most people won't get to see it in a theater somewhere.
I understand the situation we're in at the moment, with theaters not necessarily being safe for everyone. But why not allow Luca to be part of the Premier Access program like just about every other Disney release this spring? This is now two Pixar movies in a row that have been sent straight to streaming and that's criminal.
It would be infinitely better to see Luca in a theater, escaping the heat of a hot summer day and laughing alongside dozens of strangers. That won't be a possibility for most, but Luca is still a wonderful play on any screen, regardless of the size. This is a film filled to the brim with joy and wonder, leaving you smiling hours after you watch it, feeling once again like a kid on the first day of summer.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Disney and Pixar's Luca will debut on June 18th on Disney+.