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Film Review: “Luca” Is Simultaneously Fresh and Stale

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | June 17th, 2021

Film poster: “Luca”

Luca (Enrico Casarosa, 2021) 2½ out of 4 stars.

Under the sea live tailed and scaled bipedal humanoid creatures who studiously avoid contact with the world above. Young Luca, however, to quote another animated underwater resident, wants to be “where the people are,” and so, despite parental warnings to the contrary, he makes his way towards the surface. Imagine his surprise when, straining against the bubble of liquid that separates him from air, he sees another seaboy like him calmly walk onto the beach, miraculously transforming into a seeming human being. It’s that easy? Count him in! Thus begins the latest Disney-Pixar venture, Luca, which features enjoyable enough adventures and characters, inconsistent worldbuilding and the usual kind of outcast-makes-good narrative we have come to expect from these kinds of films. Sure, the title cards and setting may be Italian (with some actual spoken phrases thrown in for atmosphere), but there’s nothing here we haven’t seen before, though it is all exquisitely rendered.

That boy who drags Luca out into the open is Alberto who, as it turns out, was long ago left alone by an absent father. Though not nearly as sophisticated as he thinks he is, Alberto is nevertheless far savvier about human ways than is Luca. Together, they forge a friendship that eventually settles on the dream of riding a Vespa scooter around the globe. The problem is that they have no such vehicle nor the means to obtain one, though they try to build their own, to humorous results. Eventually, they land on the idea of swimming to the nearby town, imagining that there, surely, a Vespa must be. And they’re right! Unfortunately, its owner, Ercole, is the town’s biggest jerk. But lucky for them, they also meet a plucky young girl, Giulia, who has a longstanding grudge against the much older Ercole, since every year he beats her in a race that has three stages: swimming, eating pasta and bicycling. Seeing, in the two new arrivals, possible teammates, she effectively adopts them. They agree, hoping that the money they might win will grant them the Vespa. Game on.

Luca (Jacob Tremblay) struggling to break the surface in LUCA ©Disney/Pixar

And that’s just the half of it. The intricacies of the plot are definitely inventive, even if the structure is old hat. One of the most interesting potential details is the how and the why of the transformation from sea creature to human, which sadly is never explained, even obliquely. Any amount of water, fresh or salt, that lands on our boys leads to a sudden return to their original form, wherever the liquid land, yet a quick brush off returns them to the disguise. This raises the stakes whenever it rains or they come close to the shoreline, but is applied somewhat erratically. Nevertheless, the shenanigans of all involved, including those of Luca’s parents, who come looking for their son, prove entertaining.

The voice talent is solid, with Jacob Tremblay (Wonder) as Luca, Jack Dylan Grazer (Shazam!) as Alberto, Maya Rudolph (The Mitchells vs the Machines) as Mom, Jim Gaffigan (Most Wanted) as Dad, Emma Berman as Giulia and Saverio Raimondo as Ercole, among many others. These performances, coupled with Pixar’s usual stunning animation, make the movie both lovely to hear and see. If the final result doesn’t quite amaze as much as do individual parts, it’s the fault of a script that takes chances in the setup without risking the payoff. It’s unquestionably fun, but not much more.

l-r: Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer) and Luca (Jacob Tremblay), in human form, in LUCA ©Disney/Pixar
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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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