Pixar are renowned for stretching the conceptual boundaries of family entertainment, demanding that kids (and trickier still, adults) keep up: a lonesome robot clears up trash on a desolate future Earth in WALL*E; a little girl’s conflicted emotions wage abstract war in Inside Out; and a jazz musician’s tremulous spirit yearns to escape back to Earth in Soul.
Luca, the animation giant’s 24th feature in 26 years, is inspired partly by director Enrico Casarosa’s childhood summers on the beaches of Genoa, and partly by Fellini movies (especially coming-of-age dramedy I Vitelloni). But if that sounds esoteric, Pixar does what it always does by making it fun and accessible to all – did we mention Luca is about two sea monsters who take human form when they’re above the water’s surface?
We begin beneath the waves, as our eponymous hero (Jacob Tremblay), looking like a cross between a dragon, a fish and a boy, finds treasure stolen from a boat. Then the teenage sea monster who nabbed it, Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), pitches up, and the two become friends, with the older Alberto showing Luca how they both morph into humans on land. Luca’s parents (Maya Rudolph, Jim Gaffigan) are not happy with this development. They plan to send their son to live in ‘the deep’ with his oddball uncle, and so Luca and Alberto abscond to terra firma, taking up home in a coastal town full of fisherman who dream of catching sea monsters…
The concept is strong enough, but Luca is ultimately the one that got away, as the story swerves into becoming a quest to win the Portorosso Cup – an annual triathlon consisting of swimming, cycling, and scoffing pasta. For Pixar, it all feels a little too unimaginative, tried-and-tested, and no amount of shimmering waves, cobbled streets and verdant greenery can prevent monotony from creeping in.
When it does, it’s usually human girl Giulia (Emma Berman) who casts it away again – befriending Luca and Alberto, she quickly becomes the leader of the pack – and the last 10 minutes stir emotions as themes of friendship, tolerance, trust, personal growth and self-acceptance bubble to the surface. The final takeaway, meanwhile, is a message that thoughtfully favors tentative hope over naïve idealism.